Which Way Forward for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 6

al-Qaeda supporters in Yemen (Source: AFP)

Beginning in February, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its proxies launched sequential offensives against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the southern Yemeni governorates of Hadramawt and Shabwah. The latest offensive, Operation Sweeping Torrent, was launched on March 7 with the objective of clearing AQAP from the governorate of Abyan, a longstanding stronghold for the organization (Middle East Monitor, March 8). The UAE and the security forces it backs in Yemen claim to have successfully cleared AQAP from large swaths of all three governorates.

If such claims are even partially true, what does this mean for AQAP and its future operations in Yemen? How will AQAP’s leadership and its rank and file respond to the Emirati-backed offensives? Will increased pressure on it by the Emirati-backed militias prompt AQAP to rethink its strategies? Might AQAP be goaded into adopting the largely failed punishment strategy of Islamic State (IS), a maximalist approach that alienated most of those IS wanted to rule and left it overextended and exposed? Or will it continue to model an organization like the Taliban, which, albeit brutal, has successfully woven itself into the very fabric of Afghanistan?

As an organization, AQAP has previously confronted the question of whether it should become more radical and implement a punishment strategy, or whether it should be more measured in its use of violence and adapt itself to the very local and particular socio-cultural environments in which it operates. For the most part, the leadership and its operatives have answered by pursuing a gradualist strategy that has de-prioritized the enforcement of AQAP’s radical interpretation of Islamic law in favor of accepting established understandings of tribal and Islamic law. [1] At the same time, AQAP has successfully exploited the many opportunities for inserting its operatives and forces into Yemen’s layered and increasingly complex war.

Concurrently, AQAP has also de-prioritized its focus on attacking the “far enemy”—the West—and is concentrating on battling its enemies within Yemen. To a considerable degree, the war in Yemen has forced AQAP to become a more indigenous organization that is far more concerned with local and national objectives than with waging trans-national jihad. The war has changed AQAP just as it has altered most other organizations and power structures in Yemen.

AQAP’s future in Yemen may well be determined by whether or not its leadership continues to pursue the relatively nuanced and pragmatic strategy that it has largely followed for the last three years, or whether it resorts to the kind of punishment strategy employed by IS. How the leadership and the rank and file respond to the newly launched UAE-backed offensives against them will give some indication of which path AQAP intends to follow.

Relying on Local Militia

In February, the UAE and the security forces that it backs launched Operation Faisal and Operation Decisive Sword (Gulf Today, February 17). These campaigns were followed in March by Operation Sweeping Torrent. The first two focused respectively on clearing AQAP from areas to the west of the port city of al-Mukalla and the southern half of the governorate of Shabwah, while Operation Sweeping Torrent was aimed at clearing AQAP from parts of Abyan (Emirates News Agency, March 7). The three offensives have already concluded. The first two reportedly achieved their objective of clearing AQAP—in the space of days—from the targeted areas (Gulf Today, March 12).

All three offensives were carried out by regional militias created and funded by the UAE. These militias include the Hadrami Elite Forces, Shabawani Elite Forces and the Security Belt Forces, which are also called the al-Hizam Brigades. These regional militias are composed of men drawn almost exclusively from the areas in which the militias operate. In theory, the fact that the men and presumably the commanders are drawn from local communities should mean that these forces possess superior operational intelligence due to their intimate knowledge of the social and physical topography. Using men from the areas where they are deployed may also help ensure a higher level of buy-in by communities. However, these forces operate with no unified chain of command. Even within the individual militias there is often no clear operational hierarchy. [2] The absence of unified chains of command and the lack of a state authority to oversee them mean that it is unlikely that the militias will be able to make the most of the advantages they possess. While local militias can be highly effective in counter-insurgency operations—this was the case in the 2011-12 campaign against AQAP in Abyan and Shabwa—there is also the risk that they will be far more motivated by local agendas and goals rather than an abiding commitment to combating insurgents, in this case AQAP. These very local agendas and concerns can—and most often do—lead to abuses and the corruption of intelligence.

When the United States began its campaign in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, it allied itself with a number of local militias, warlords and various elites that had been displaced and targeted by the Taliban. After initial successes that forced the leadership of the Taliban to flee, plead for amnesty or turn themselves in, many of these gains were erased within four years by the abuses committed against local populations by warlords, militias and, in some cases, the U.S. forces backing them. While there are numerous reasons for the rebirth of the Taliban, abuses by local and regional militias and warlords were a significant factor. [3] Despite having been near defeat in 2003-4, the Taliban tapped into popular discontent with predatory local forces. While the Taliban are frequently predatory and brutal, in many areas, they were able to offer higher levels of security than local militias and warlords, and their use of violence was often more measured and predictable. [4] With Pakistan as a safe haven, the Taliban were able to revive their alliances and networks of operatives and fighters. Now, 17 years after the United States first launched military operations in Afghanistan, the Taliban are resurgent.

Yemen is very different from Afghanistan. Unlike Afghanistan, there is a strong and ancient Yemeni identity, and the frequent claims in the media of a sectarian divide in Yemen are largely untrue. Yemen—both south and north—also has a history of relatively strong formal and informal governance. However, as a result of three years of war, the divisions within Yemeni society are now far more pronounced. The country has no effective government and its armed forces have either been destroyed or have devolved into local and regional militias that often only answer to their individual commanding officers.

The UAE’s policy of equipping and training local and regional militias without a unified chain of command or the restraining authority of an actual government may result in some short-term gains against AQAP. However, the long-term effects of such a policy may further empower AQAP and could lead to an Afghanistan-like outcome for parts of Yemen. The UAE backed security forces all have their own intensely local agendas and aims (al-Araby, March 2). They do not necessarily prioritize the battle against AQAP. Just as with the United States in Afghanistan, the UAE and its partners are reliant on local militias for intelligence. This intelligence is difficult to vet and can be manipulated to paint political and martial rivals as members of AQAP in order to remove them. This corruption and manipulation of intelligence occurred with such frequency in Afghanistan that U.S. authorities often arrested and sometimes killed leaders who were allied with the United States. They simply fell prey to a rival who happened to have the ear of whatever transient set of U.S. authorities was in charge of a particular district at the time. UAE backed forces have already been charged with disappearing Yemenis, running black site prisons, torture, mass arrests and extra-legal detention. [5] These types of abuses will fuel grievances and cycles of revenge that AQAP, just like the Taliban did in Afghanistan, will exploit.

Adopting the ‘Taliban Model’?

While the UAE is touting the success of its three offensives against AQAP, it is unlikely that any gains made will be consolidated. The UAE-backed militias do not have the manpower or training to secure what are vast areas, many of which are mountainous and crisscrossed with canyons. This type of terrain makes sustained clearing operations costly and always favors insurgent forces. UAE-backed forces have made some progress in clearing areas to the west of Mukalla, including Wadi Huwayrah and Wadi Hajr.[6] Additionally, the UAE and its forces claim to have cleared a large part of southern Shabwa that abuts the governorate of Hadramawt.

It is difficult to verify the claims, however, given AQAP’s history of strategic retreats and its reluctance to engage superior forces, it is likely that AQAP has simply dispersed its fighters to other strongholds. Also, much like the Taliban before they regained significant territory, AQAP encourages its fighters to return to their homes and villages when faced with a potential defeat. AQAP fighters—especially the rank and file—disappear into the areas from which they came and are sheltered according to tribal custom, which generally protects members regardless of their affiliation with an external group.

AQAP’s reluctance to engage superior forces and risk significant losses not only demonstrates the group’s understanding of guerrilla warfare, but is also of evidence of its primary objective: to ensure the organization’s survival at all costs. Its secondary objective is to continue to lay the foundation for AQAP’s long-term growth. This secondary objective is twofold: first, continue to build relationships with a wide range of tribal elites and anti-Houthi militias wherever possible (Middle East Monitor, November 9, 2017). Second, AQAP continues to focus on tapping into licit and illicit trade networks, which allow it to fund its operations. [7]

To achieve these objectives, AQAP has been forced, much like the Taliban, to selectively de-prioritize and modify its interpretation of Islamic law. For AQAP this de-prioritization of its radical Islamist platform has been ongoing—albeit with periodic reversions to its radical roots—for much of the last three years. This is not to say that the leadership—or at least some of it—is not still dedicated to eventually imposing its interpretation of Islamic law across the emirate that it would like to create. However, war, economics and local and national politics impose their own realities which must be grappled with and exploited if an insurgent group is to survive and thrive.

This readiness to adapt to local cultural and political realities has been clearly demonstrated by AQAP in terms of both its willingness to rule through proxies—as it did in Mukalla—and its willingness to ally itself with those who do not share its ideology or long-term objectives (al-Jazeera, September 16, 2015). Much like the Taliban, AQAP is intent on weaving itself into the social fabric of Yemen—at least of southern Yemen. It is doing this by seeding its operatives both overtly and covertly into the growing number of militias that operate across southern Yemen. These militias are often organized along tribal lines and are variously formed for the purpose of fighting the Houthis, inter-tribal feuds and, in a growing number of cases, for fighting rival militias.

Concurrent with inserting its operatives and fighters into numerous militias, AQAP continues to tap into licit and illicit trade networks. AQAP’s opportunities for funding itself have diminished since it retreated from Mukalla in April 2016. Prior to its retreat from the city, AQAP was siphoning off money from illicit sales of crude oil and was successfully taxing imports. It also imposed a tax on the trade in qat, a mild narcotic consumed by Yemenis. Much like the Taliban, who do nothing to stop opium production and in fact benefit from it, despite its being forbidden in Islam, AQAP tolerates qat usage and to some degree benefits from the trade. [8]

The extreme instability in southern Yemen means that abundant opportunities remain for AQAP to build alliances—even if they are short-lived—and to tap into licit and illicit trade networks. The UAE’s policy of funding and backing local militias with no overriding chain of command or state-based oversight will likely provide additional opportunities for AQAP to insert itself into the factional disputes that are sure to result from such a policy. Just as in Afghanistan, where the United States empowered warlords, such a strategy may yield short-term successes but the long-term effects, will foster an ideal operational environment for insurgent organizations, as evidenced in Afghanistan.

Staying the Course

The pragmatic strategy that AQAP has followed for the last three years has allowed it to increase its influence across southern Yemen and to grow the number of rank and file that are at least nominally allied with the group. Despite financial wherewithal, martial strength and a rapid increase in the area it controlled during 2015 and 2016, AQAP’s leadership largely resisted overreach. When it controlled Mukalla, it ruled through local proxies and attempted to curry favor with residents through public works projects (al-Jazeera, January 11). AQAP also provided relatively predictable levels of security across much of the area that it controlled. It curtailed banditry on the Mukalla-Aden road and ensured that merchants could once again freely move goods albeit with payments to AQAP. The importance of the provision of predictable levels of security in terms of building goodwill and increasing influence cannot be overemphasized. The Taliban’s success in Afghanistan depends on a complex and shifting set of factors, but their ability to provide predictable levels of security—even if their tactics are brutal—remains fundamental to their continued influence.

It is unlikely that having enjoyed the benefits of its more pragmatic strategy, that AQAP will take up the kind of maximalist strategy employed by IS. The defeat of IS in Iraq and large parts of Syria illustrates the risk of overreach and overexposure. It also clearly shows the danger of openly confronting better-armed enemies. In contrast with IS, the Taliban rarely confront a better armed enemy, they prioritize living to fight another day which in turn dovetails with their focus on winning the long war. Similarly, AQAP is also demonstrating that it is focused on the long war. This focus demands discipline, ideological flexibility, and a willingness to sublimate its own goals in favor of the goals of those militias with which it temporarily allies itself.

AQAP’s adoption of a pragmatic strategy and its focus on the long war means that the group’s organizational ethos has shifted toward the local and national. While AQAP’s leaders continue to call for “lone wolf” attacks on targets in the West, AQAP’s operatives and rank and file are focused on combating internal enemies like the Houthis rather than funding and planning attacks on external targets. [9]

The pressure being put on AQAP by the UAE-backed forces and a stepped-up U.S.-led drone campaign are unlikely to force AQAP to abandon a strategy that has—and is—paying dividends (al-Jazeera, February 5). The leadership of AQAP can easily see that IS’s maximalist strategy greatly aided its defeat, or near-defeat, while the Taliban’s unceasing focus on the long war combined with the mistakes made by the U.S. and Afghan governments have allowed it to once again become a formidable power in the country (al-Jazeera, March 7).

While AQAP may be suffering some losses due to the various offensives launched by the Emirati-backed forces, it will weather these loses by engaging in strategic retreats and by continuing to enmesh its operatives and fighters within anti-Houthi militias. AQAP’s focus on the long war means that it will bide its time until conditions are once again ripe for them to go on the offensive.

Given that southern Yemen has no effective government and that the Emirati-backed militias are riven with factions, AQAP will not have to wait long. Without a functioning government, a national army or clear chains of command, it is likely that the now well-armed local militias backed by the UAE will fail to capitalize on the gains they may have made against AQAP.  Instead, many of the militias will pursue their own particular agendas motivated by securing influence, additional arms and access to the same licit and illicit trade networks as AQAP.



[1] See: Michael Horton, “Fighting the Long War: The Evolution of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” CTC Sentinel, January 2017.

[2] Interview with Yemen based analyst, January 2018.

[3] See: Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, Picador, 2014.

[4] See: Steve Coll, Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Penguin, 2018.

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

[6] Interview with Yemen based Journalist, January 2018.

[7] Interview with Yemen based journalist, February 2018.

[8] This is not to say that qat is comparable to opium or its derivatives. Qat is more akin to strong coffee and its status within Islamic law is far more ambiguous than the use of opium, which is forbidden. However, for Salafi and takfiri groups there is no ambiguity regarding qat: it is forbidden.

[9] See: SITE May 2017.