Bringing Shari’a Rule to Yemen and Saudi Arabia: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Post-Revolution Strategies

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 37

Soldiers stands guard on a military vehicle near checkpoint on Saudi-Yemeni border.

Since it began last February, the youth-led peaceful revolutionary movement in Yemen demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime has provided a political alternative to the Yemeni people which has marginalized the rhetoric of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). At the same time the violent response of the Yemeni regime to all oppositional social and political forces has increased the chaos and tension in the country. As a result many ungoverned areas have emerged and the absence of the state has fuelled AQAP’s re-emergence on the political scene of Yemen.

Before the revolution, AQAP had a strong presence in three governorates: Abyan, Ma’rib and Shabwah. Since the movement re-emerged AQAP has expanded in new areas such as Hadramawt and Aden. Other areas have witnessed limited but active cells of AQAP, such as in the capital Sana’a and the Zaidi Shiite dominated al-Jawf and Sa’da regions. [1] In certain areas AQAP has established Shari’a rule and even installed checkpoints.

Alongside the geographical expansion, AQAP has benefited from the instability in Yemen by adopting various strategies to present their ideology as an alternative to the Saleh regime. AQAP has also kept the pressure on the Saudi royal family in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In an audio message discussing President Saleh’s policies, AQAP ideologue Adel al-Abbab (a.k.a. Abu al-Zubair al-Abbab) said: “Ali Abdullah Saleh, [it] is not [a] secret to you that AQAP is founded only for the recovery of Shari’a [which is] replaced by secularism. And you should know that the cause of wielding a weapon in your face is not for [the] sake [of] influence, money or a position, but to implement Shari’a, which does not exist under your rule.” [2]

Local Strategies

AQAP has started to present itself as part of the “Arab Spring” in Yemen. Yemeni Journalist Abdulrazaq al-Jammal spent several days as a guest of AQAP in the areas they control and has interviewed one of the prominent leaders of the movement, Fahd al-Quso. [3] Al-Jammal asked the AQAP commander what led the movement to attempt to control the Abyan Governorate after avoiding public appearances previously. Al-Quso replied that the move came about because “All the Yemeni people refused this regime and expressed their absolute desire to end the rule of Ali [Abdullah] Saleh and combined their efforts with us to this. And we are an integral part of this people’s journey towards dignity and freedom under the banner of Islam” (Al-Quds al-Arabi, September 19).

In order to establish their influence in the areas they control AQAP started to rule these areas by Shari’a, establishing Harakat Ansar al-Shari’a (Movement of Shari’a Supporters) to further this effort. This movement, as AQAP ideologue al-Abbab explains, aimed to win the locals’ support and “attract them to Shari’a rule.” By this movement AQAP hopes to turn Shari’a rule “into popular action instead of keeping it as an elite one…by providing public services and solving people’s problems” said al-Abbab. [4] Al-Quso confirms this by saying that “all Muslims are supporters of Shari’a, and Ansar al-Shari’a includes all the mujahideen who [work for] Shari’a to rule in the country” (Al-Quds al-Arabi, September 19).

AQAP has formed Ansar al-Shari’a from tribesmen in the areas where they are imposing Shari’a rule. Al-Jammal noticed that in Abyan “many of those who are members of Ansar al-Shari’a are from the inhabitants of [Ja’ar] province, so any internal fighting will certainly have effects that extend to the coming years in a country where taking revenge is on the top of the list of troubles” (al-Wasat, September 14).

By relying on local elements, AQAP was able to gain support on the ground, but the absence of the state also played a major role in achieving this support. According to al-Jammal, in the areas where AQAP imposed Shari’a rule, they “succeeded in creating a status of amiability between them and the inhabitants of those regions, especially that many of the fighters belong to those regions. The model of al-Qaeda is very perfect in comparison with the model of the Saleh regime. In addition to the unprecedented security stability, the organization presents some services to the citizens, especially in the aspect of livelihood…[and] many crimes like murders, stealing [and banditry] have disappeared dramatically since the Ansar al-Shari’a entered their areas” (al-Wasat, September 18).

During their presence in the Jaar directorate and many of the regions of the Abyan province, the fighters of the Al-Qaeda organization were able to create a status of amiability between themselves and the inhabitants of those regions in particular because many of the fighters are from those regions. The model of Al-Qaeda is perfect in comparison with the model of the Saleh regime. In addition to the unprecedented security stability, the organization presents services to the citizens, including livelihoods. I have seen lists given to me by the media officials of the organization, which consist of the types of supplies that are presented to large numbers of citizens. There are even two pickups that have been assigned to distribute water to the houses, which is considered a great thing for a people who never depended on their government. The citizens of the Jaar directorate say that many crimes like murders and stealing have disappeared dramatically since the Ansar Al-Sharia entered their areas.

Regional Strategies

Since Saudi and Yemeni jihadists merged in 2009 to found AQAP, most jihadist literature considers the proximity to Saudi Arabia a causal effect for the presence of jihadists in Yemen. Jihadists desire to use Yemen as a launching pad against Gulf States, but as AQAP is unable presently to launch an open campaign as it did between 2003 and 2007 on Saudi soil, the movement has resorted to sending small cells from Yemen or recruiting Saudis to assassinate the Kingdom’s officials and royal family members. According to Saudi border guards in the Jizan region, they have managed to stop more than 25,000 illegal entries into Saudi Arabia from Yemen and thwarted the smuggling of close to 10,000 weapons in September alone (al-Jazeera, October 4).

Last August, Saudi Khadir al-Zahrahni and two others attacked Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayf’s palace in Jeddah. Al-Zahrani was killed and the other two were arrested by Saudi forces (, August 6; al-Jazeera, August 6). This attack came on the second anniversary of an assassination attempt on Prince Nayf’s son, Assistant Interior Minister for Security Affairs Prince Muhammad bin Nayf, by a suicide bomber. The assassination tactic is preferred by AQAP with their inability to launch an open confrontation with Saudi authorities (see Terrorism Monitor, November 25, 2009).

The Saudi position towards Saleh was perceived among Yemenis as support for the regime. AQAP in turn started to use more “political” rhetoric directed towards the Saudi royal family. Well-known AQAP ideologue Ibrahim al-Rubaish released an audio message addressing Prince Nayf after the attack on his palace and threatened him of the consequences of the Arab Spring: “Today we are in an era of revolution. These revolutions succeeded in overthrowing the most repressive and tyrannical of Arab regimes, those which used to teach Nayf and his criminal gangs how to use methods of repression are collapsing by the gatherings of the youth.” [5]

Al-Rubaish who previously set seven conditions to end the fight against the Saudi royal family, has listed significant new politically-oriented demands in addition to the historic demands of the Saudi Arabian jihadists. These demands include “the expulsion of infidels from the Kingdom and the nullification of all man-made laws which fill your various ministries, those which you call with various names, such as rules and regulations”. Further demands by al-Rubaish include:

  •         “Restore to the Islamic judiciary its usurped independence and respect, and grant its judges the right to investigate all cases, allowing its rulings to be carried out on all people, noble or ignoble, the rulers or their subjects.”
  •          “Grant the Presidency for the Promotion of Good and Prevention of Vice total jurisdiction to carry out their tasks, with both their hands and their tongues as suitable, against individuals, princes, establishments, and government institutes.”
  •          “The Islamic propagators and students [are] to be granted the freedom to speak the truth, fearing no repercussions from anyone, and that the Interior Ministry have no authority to plant or dismiss Friday preachers.”
  •          “Release all people in your prisons who are not serving criminal sentences.”
  •          “Do not stand as an obstacle to those who seek to defend and aid the Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, or any other Muslim land with their lives, wealth, or tongues.” [6]


AQAP, like most Salafi-Jihadist groups, has been demonstrating a strong ability to adapt to the pressures they are experiencing; most notably the pressure the Arab Spring has put on such movements to present a political alternative to the Arab masses.

This being said, AQAP has adopted new strategies locally and regionally that aim to gain local support as well as to assist in representing the group as an integral part of the youth movement. AQAP aims to present Shari’a rule (according to their understanding of it) as the most suitable alternative to Arab political systems. This means that the defiant and violent response of Arab regimes, including Yemen, to peaceful protests demanding political change, will ultimately be the major factor in restoring al-Qaeda and affiliated groups’ status as defenders against these regimes.


1. Adel al-Abbab, in a Pal Talk conversation released on April 22, gave details on AQAP activities in these areas (  See also Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Is al-Qaeda establishing a small Shari’a emirates in Yemen?” Open Democracy, May 19, 2011.

2., September 10, 2011.

3. For further information about al-Quso see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 27, 2010.


5. Ibrahim Sulaiman al-Rubaish: Yokhrboon Beoutahm Be Aydeehm (Destroying Their Homes with Their Own Hands),, August 29.

6. Ibid.