Whither al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 4

Qais al-Raymi, the recently killed leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (source: ibtimes.sg)

On January 29, an airstrike killed Qasim al-Raymi, the “emir” of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Raymi, who assumed the leadership of AQAP in 2015, has been reported dead on numerous occasions in the past. However, on February 6, the White House released a statement confirming al-Raymi’s death (al-Jazeera, February 7).

What does the death of al-Raymi mean for AQAP’s future operations and long-term strategies? In short, very little. While al-Raymi was, by some accounts, a skilled tactician, his influence within the organization was never as pronounced as that of his predecessor, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. While this partly reflects the different styles and core competencies of the two leaders, more importantly, it reflects the fact that AQAP has moved away from relying on a hierarchical core for leadership. [1] Instead, it is implementing an atomized organizational structure that empowers local operatives. [2] AQAP has also reordered its priorities and objectives.

Such changes began as early as 2017. They were a response to the increased pressure from coalition-backed forces and the fluid socio-political environment that AQAP must navigate. [3] While AQAP maintains a veneer of ideology, it has long since deprioritized imposing strict interpretations of sharia, holding territory, and carrying out attacks on foreign targets. Instead, AQAP’s focus is parochial and pragmatic. [4]

One of AQAP’s core strategies is the seeding of its operatives and fighters throughout Yemen’s disparate collection of security forces and militias. AQAP fighters have been knowingly and unknowingly recruited into many of these forces which operate throughout south Yemen and in pockets of territory in northern Yemen. Various fighting forces—even those opposed to one another—value these operatives and fighters for their expertise, discipline, and, in some cases, for their ability to access dark networks (Terrorism Monitor, January 26, 2018). AQAP and the Islamic State in Yemen (ISY) have benefited directly and indirectly from the involvement of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Both countries have, at times, de-prioritized battling AQAP in favor of fighting the Houthis and pursuing their own objectives in Yemen (The New Arab, June 12, 2018; al-Jazeera, August 6, 2018). AQAP-linked fighters fight alongside many of Yemen’s militias and security forces, most notably in the still-contested city of Taiz and in the governorates of Marib and al-Jawf. [5]

The seeding and even the hiring out of its fighters to various militias is a way of securing influence, funds, and access to illicit trade networks. All of these are fundamental to AQAP’s long-term survival and to the survival of its operatives. AQAP has followed the tactical and strategic moves that have been made by many terrorist and insurgent groups. Groups like al-Qaeda in Syria, which adeptly morphed into various “moderate” rebel groups, and others are tailoring their strategies and tactics to very local contexts. Access to illicit trade networks and engagement with emergent elites and external powers are more useful than ideological adherence and costly foreign terrorist attacks.

AQAP is weaker in some respects. It no longer has the same capability that it once had to orchestrate attacks abroad, although this capability was always quite limited. AQAP is also no longer able to hold and govern large areas as it did in 2015 and 2016. However, this diminishment is only partly due to counter-terrorism efforts. It also reflects AQAP’s attempts to remake itself in the face of the many-sided conflict in Yemen.

The complexity of Yemen’s interlocking and overlapping wars demands that AQAP focus on what are often very local agendas and battles (Middle East Eye, August 3, 2019). Understanding, much less figuring out, how to benefit from the wars in Yemen, is akin to playing three-dimensional chess with missing pieces. Ever-shifting alliances between Yemen’s many warring parties and their external backers continue to test and recast Yemen’s established and emergent political factions, its militias, as well as terrorist organizations such as AQAP and the Islamic State in Yemen (ISY) (Terrorism Monitor, December 17, 2019).

AQAP’s atomization is, at least partly, its strategy for taking advantage of the disorder in Yemen. By transitioning into some kind of umbrella organization that no longer relies on a hierarchical core, AQAP can more easily insert itself, or at least its operatives, into localized conflicts. Both former and current AQAP operatives and fighters are active in large swaths of Yemen where they operate alongside various militias and security forces. This is particularly the case along the hotly contested frontlines between the Houthis and their allies, Saudi-backed forces, and UAE-backed forces in south Yemen. Places like the gateway city of Taiz and the governorate of al-Bayda yield abundant opportunities for AQAP, and, to a lesser degree, ISY, to build influence, tap dark networks (especially those that engage in arms trafficking), and to sell their services as fighters (Inside Arabia, January 30).

Just as war drives innovation and change in war-fighting technologies, it also supercharges the evolution of insurgent and terrorist groups. An organization’s failure to change in response to the dynamic environment in which it operates likely portends its end. AQAP’s resilience is a testament to the group’s ability to remake itself. The complexity of Yemen’s interlocking wars and the prolonged involvement of outside powers mean that AQAP has been forced to evolve into a more diffuse organization. This will impact the “AQAP” brand and may mean that AQAP becomes something of a constellation of loosely allied groups in Yemen. At the same time, AQAP will be less legible than it has been in the past. This lack of legibility is very much in its interest as it attempts to evade counter-terrorism efforts, access illicit networks, and profit from Yemen’s wars. AQAP’s evolution may point toward how the next wave of insurgent and terrorist groups will operate. These groups will be more amorphous, increasingly local, and more purposefully illegible.


[1]  Author interview, Yemen based analyst, January 2020; author interview former Yemeni security official, February 2020.

[2] There are persistent rumors in Yemen that many in AQAP regarded al-Raymi with suspicion. In the past, AQAP has used coalition (United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) strikes as a way to “shape” the socio-cultural terrain and even the organization itself by eliminating internal and external enemies. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia maintain extensive networks of informal and formal agents whose job is to gather intelligence on potential targets. As with any intelligence network, especially those that are poorly monitored and often working at cross-purposes, these networks are permeable.

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

[4] This is not to say that AQAP will not try to inspire “lone wolf” attacks abroad. Most recently AQAP claimed credit for directing Saudi Arabian Air Force officer Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani to launch a terror attack in Pensacola, Florida on December 6, 2019 (Middle East Monitor, December 8, 2019). AQAP’s ties to Al-Shamrani remain unclear.

[5] Author interviews with Yemen based analysts and journalists, February 2020.