Guns for Hire: How al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Is Securing Its Future in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 2

AQAP militants (Source:

The outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, said in a recent interview that Yemen “continues to be one of the most frustrating theaters in our counterterrorism work right now.” [1] Mr. Rasmussen’s comments reflect the difficulty of conducting counter-terror operations in war-torn Yemen. The conflict is like a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll—there are wars within wars. Complicating the conflict further is the presence of outside actors, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose own agendas in Yemen are frequently in opposition to one another.

In such a conflict, drawing clear lines between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), anti-Houthi militias, tribal fighters and forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE is an increasingly difficult task. This ambiguity, the multiplicity of fighting groups, the ever-shifting alliances and the hundreds of millions of dollars of materiel provided to pro-government forces by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all helped AQAP survive and thrive (Middle East Eye, October 27, 2017). At the same time, the war has forced AQAP to become a very different organization than it was four years ago.

The war has provided AQAP with a host of opportunities to hone and refine its tactics while continuing to grow its organization. Most critically, AQAP has become more pragmatic and continues to de-prioritize ideology—at least in terms of its day-to-day operations—in favor of building alliances, recruiting and training capable fighters and enhancing access to revenue streams. AQAP has learned from its own mistakes and from those of Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq—ideology might win recruits, but it rarely wins wars. Patience, skilled fighters, alliances and access to money and weapons are what wins or, in the case of AQAP, ensures long-term organizational survival.

From Ideologues to Predatory Pragmatists

AQAP’s leadership learned a great deal from its first failed attempt to hold and govern territory in 2011-12 (al-Jazeera, May 29, 2011). Its near defeat in the southern governorate of Abyan in 2012 was largely due to the fact that AQAP had alienated the populace it was trying to govern and, most critically, it made enemies of tribal elites rather than making them allies, or at least ensuring that they remained neutral. AQAP’s overconfidence, and its unbending application of its own strident interpretation of Islamic law in the areas it seized in 2011, cost it any local support it might have enjoyed.

In April 2015, AQAP took over Yemen’s fifth largest city, the port of al-Mukalla (al-Jazeera, September 16, 2015). The takeover was swift and relatively bloodless. The AQAP leadership focused on firming up alliances and agreements with local elites and existing power centers. Rather than overtly asserting its control, it ruled through proxies (Middle East Eye, May 12, 2015). The application of Islamic law was limited—with some exceptions—and generally mirrored what the populace already accepted.

AQAP’s real efforts during its yearlong occupation of al-Mukalla were directed toward building alliances with a range of elites from local tribes and business owners to members of the largely defunct Yemeni army. These alliances were built on reciprocity: AQAP provided security, protection and a measure of stability, and, in exchange, various elites agreed not to fight and to share in the spoils of war. [2] During its invasion and occupation of al-Mukalla, AQAP stole an estimated $100 million from the Yemeni Central Bank branch in the city and from other banks. AQAP also seized millions of dollars’ worth of military hardware from army depots and bases. This money and hardware was essential to funding AQAP’s ongoing operations and to secure alliances. A percentage of the spoils were undoubtedly shared among those who, at a minimum, chose not to fight AQAP. [3]

While AQAP continued to publish its propaganda—just as it does now—the importance of enforcing Islamic law, of creating a caliphate and of directly attacking targets in the West were de-prioritized in favor of localized objectives. The continuing stream of AQAP tweets, forum postings and publications retains some importance for recruitment and provides material for analysts to parse, but generally does not reflect the pragmatic and dynamic strategies that AQAP employs.

While AQAP left al-Mukalla in April 2016 rather than fight the Emirati backed forces that took control of the city, its year of governing a sizeable city—at least through proxies—provided the leadership with invaluable experience. Some residents of al-Mukalla claim that AQAP did a better job of administering the city than the current Emirati backed government (al-Jazeera, January 11). Most critically for AQAP, its rule over al-Mukalla allowed it to establish its reputation as a reliable and relatively capable force that was willing to work with those elites whose interests overlapped with its own.

Spinning Its Web

AQAP’s willingness to sideline its ideologically driven ambitions in favor of attainable objectives like building alliances and securing access to revenue through illicit and licit trade has prompted it to focus on implementing its enmeshment strategy. This involves AQAP inserting its operatives and forces into existing power structures where it can leverage factionalism by offering the services of its often better trained and better motivated fighters. AQAP is implementing a strategy that is not dissimilar to that used by its enemies, the Houthis, who slowly co-opted elites that had been loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The buy-in by national and local elites that the Houthis enjoy is on a far larger scale than that enjoyed by AQAP, but, for AQAP, even limited and contingent local support is critical for its long-term survival.

AQAP’s operatives and fighters are present on all of the frontlines in Yemen’s multi-actor civil war. They are most active in the governorate of al-Bayda and in the battle for the divided city of Taiz. AQAP also remains a potent force in parts of the Hadramawt, where it has launched numerous attacks against the Emirati backed Hadrawmi Elite Forces (al-Monitor, July 19, 2017). [4] It is in al-Bayda and Taiz, however, that AQAP has repeatedly proven itself to be a dependable ally in the battle against Houthi-allied forces.

Al-Bayda is a strategic fallback position for AQAP. After its near defeat in 2012, senior operatives sought and found refuge in the governorate’s rugged terrain. Control of this strategic governorate, which is located near the center of Yemen, where it acts as a kind of keystone for accessing eight other governorates, is critical to the Houthis and to those forces opposing them.

AQAP’s relationship with the tribes that are the dominant power in al-Bayda is complex. Lines between AQAP fighters and operatives and tribal militias as well as coalition backed anti-Houthi forces are rarely demarcated. This lack of clarity is a critical component to AQAP’s strategy of enmeshing its operatives with anti-Houthi and tribal fighters. This is not to say that AQAP enjoys a high-degree of support from al-Bayda’s tribes. In many cases, the opposite is true. AQAP and some parts of these tribes have fought pitched battles against one another. However, for the moment, AQAP and much of the membership of the various tribes, whose territory encompasses al-Bayda, are focused on defeating a common enemy, the Houthis. [5] For now, this unites them.

In the bitterly contested city of Taiz, which has been under siege by Houthi and formerly Saleh-aligned forces since 2014, AQAP operatives and fighters are overtly and covertly fighting alongside local militias, many of which embrace Salafism. AQAP’s fighters are better trained, organized and funded than many of the ad-hoc militias that were formed to fight the Houthis and their allies. This was particularly the case in the first two years of the war in Yemen. Just as AQAP leverages factionalism, it is pragmatic in how it deploys its fighters. In Taiz, in particular, AQAP fighters have often been critical to efforts to stop Houthi-aligned forces from gaining territory.

In the Hadramawt, AQAP faces a different enemy and is employing a different strategy. Here the enemy is not the Houthis and those forces allied with them—at least not overtly—instead it is the UAE-backed and created Hadrawmi Elite Forces, supposedly allied with Yemen’s government in exile. The UAE backed force’s popularity among locals—many of whom view the UAE as intent on the colonization of the oil and gas rich parts of Yemen—is limited due to its harsh tactics.

The UAE’s attempt to gain a foothold in the area has empowered some Hadrawmi elites and disempowered others. These disaffected elites, combined with growing popular resentment of the UAE and its allies, have provided AQAP with the opening it needs. As is pointed out in a recent article for al-Jazeera, many residents of al-Mukalla look favorably upon AQAP’s light footprint occupation of the city (al-Jazeera, January 11). They cite the fact that AQAP engaged in more public works and provided better security for residents than the current governing regime.

Just as AQAP has exploited factionalism and leveraged its fighting capabilities in al-Bayda and Taiz, it is doing the same in the Hadramawt, only with a slight twist —it is increasingly acting as a mercenary force.

Guns for Hire

Like many terrorist and militant organizations, AQAP has at times been used by the state that it claims to want to overthrow. For example, parts of the former Saleh regime used al-Qaeda to target rivals and to extract funds from Western donors. AQAP and its precursor organization were thoroughly penetrated by both branches of Yemeni intelligence: the Political Security Bureau (PSB) and the National Security Agency (NSA) (al-Jazeera, June 4, 2015). The murky relationship between the Saleh regime and AQAP mirrors the equally murky and complex set of relationships that now exist between a host of Yemeni elites, coalition-backed forces and AQAP. The group is expert at exploiting the ambiguous and ever-shifting alliances that now exist across war-torn Yemen.

Alliances such as these serve a multiplicity of purposes, but most importantly they allow AQAP to further enmesh its operatives in a variety of martial, social and business networks where they can collect valuable human intelligence (HUMINT). These alliances also serve as important sources of revenue for AQAP, both in terms of hard currency and access to licit and illicit trade networks.

The war in Yemen—or, more accurately, wars—are providing elites across the country with an abundance of opportunities to profit, although these profits pale in comparison with those of the arms manufacturers supplying Saudi Arabia and the UAE. [6] AQAP too is intent on finding new ways to profit and secure its financial future. Just as its ability to deploy motivated, well-trained fighters to the frontlines in places like Taiz and al-Bayda, keep them on post and ensure they are supplied, is recognized and valued by some anti-Houthi forces, the same applies to certain elites in the Hadramawt. While there is no Houthi threat in the Hadramawt, there is much at stake in the resource-rich governorate. The Hadramawt is home to Yemen’s LNG terminal and contains developed oil and gas fields, as well as what could be considerable untapped oil reserves. The Hadramawt also sits atop Yemen’s last largely untapped aquifer.

The involvement of Saudi Arabia in Hadrawmi affairs and of the UAE in particular has angered many residents, elite and non-elite. Many view the UAE and Saudi Arabia as colonizing forces, intent on carving up Yemen and denying it its nationhood. Concurrent with this, UAE-backed forces have been accused of disappearing and torturing Yemenis they suspect of links to AQAP or of backing tribal militias opposed to the Hadrawmi Elite Forces (al-Jazeera, June 22, 2017). [7]

The combination of abusive tactics, a foreign presence, and the sidelining of many Hadrawmi elites is providing AQAP with opportunities to maintain and enhance its position in the Hadramawt. In some areas—particularly in the southern reaches of the Hadramawt, where UAE-backed forces are most active—AQAP fighters act as guns for hire for disaffected elites who want to thwart what they see as a takeover by the UAE that could result in their permanent disempowerment. [8] At the same time that there is conflict between Hadrawmi elites, there is a struggle between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whose conflicting agendas mean that the forces each backs do not always work together and, at times, even fight one another.

AQAP’s leadership understands the financial and political advantages that will likely arise from allowing its fighters to act as mercenaries for select elites. The war in the Hadramawt will enrich AQAP while allowing it to continue to enmesh its operatives in local power structures.


The complexity of the war in Yemen, the presence of outside actors with conflicting agendas, and the opportunity to tap into a variety of licit and illicit networks all favor the continued growth and development of AQAP. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it is an organization—or, more accurately, a plurality of organizations—that learns, adapts, evolves and stands ready to seize the advantage where possible. AQAP’s ability to adapt to changing political and martial environments by remaining fluid is evidenced by its willingness to de-prioritize core aspects of its militant Salafist ideology in favor of more expedient and pragmatic strategies that enable it to build alliances, enmesh its operatives and tap into revenue streams.

The weakening position of Houthi and Houthi-allied forces on some fronts and the, as yet, limited possibility of their retreat from Sanaa will aid AQAP. The inability of coalition-backed forces to secure the areas that they claim to control is made clear by the almost daily attacks and bombings in Aden and across southern Yemen.

If coalition backed forces are able to force the Houthis to retreat, AQAP will move to fill some of the voids left by the Houthis and their allies—at least over the short-term. However, AQAP understands the danger of overexposure. It will continue to conceal itself within Yemen’s matryoshka-like war in order to pursue pragmatic strategies that preserve its alliances and access to licit and illicit trade networks. The leadership of AQAP recognizes that the future belongs to organizations that can rapidly adapt to and exploit dynamic environments.



[1] See:

[2] Author interviews, various Hadramawt-based ex-government officials (October-November 2016).

[3] Author interview with a Yemen-based journalist/analyst (December 2016).

[4] See: SITE Intelligence Group (January 10, 2018).

[5] See: Nadwa al-Dawsari, “Our Common Enemy: Ambiguous Ties Between al-Qaeda and Yemen’s Tribes,” Carnegie Middle East Center, January 10, 2018.

[6] See: Peter Salisbury, “Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order,” Chatham House, December 20, 2017.

[7] See: “Yemen: UAE Backs Abusive Local Forces”, Human Rights Watch, June 22, 2017.

[8] Author interview with a Hadramawt-based journalist/analyst (January 2017); author interview with a former member of the Yemeni government (January 2017).