Returning From the Brink? The Intensifying War Against Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Since being elected into office in February Yemen’s President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has prioritised efforts to combat Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); embarking upon a large-scale military offensive against Islamist militants in Yemen’s southern provinces. This has been accompanied by the reengagement of the United States (US) in Yemen, who have recommenced military co-operation with the Yemeni government and resumed drone strikes against key strategic AQAP targets. Nevertheless, while this renewed focus has led to a number of recent gains in the fight against AQAP, the intensification of counter-terrorism activities could serve to fuel further radicalisation and the rise of anti-Americanism in Yemen unless military activities are accompanied by adequate efforts to address the country’s broader human security challenges.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Whilst the events of the Arab Spring and the death of Osama Bin Laden have significantly weakened Al-Qaeda’s core and the relevance of its ideological agenda throughout the Middle East and North Africa, its highly dispersed network of affiliate organisations still represent a major security challenge for the international community. Nowhere is this more evident than in Yemen, where AQAP has expanded its reach; taking full advantage of recent economic instability, deteriorating humanitarian and security conditions, and the chaos engendered by the breakdown of central government control in the country’s southern provinces.

Formed in January 2009 out of a merger between Al-Qaeda’s Yemen and Saudi branches, AQAP first gained international notoriety by claiming responsibility for the attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over the US on 25 December 2009 and the subsequent attempt to send two parcel bombs to the US in October 2010.1 While its core membership is only believed to number between 100 and 400 operatives, it has often been suggested that the group also benefits from a loose support network that are particularly active in Yemen’s Abyan, Shebwa and Hadramawt provinces – with an additional presence in Aden and Lajh.2

Despite both the Yemeni and US governments having made a number of sporadic gains since late 2011 in their efforts to target AQAP’s senior leadership, most notably with a US drone strike on 30 September 2011 which killed US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki3, the group have continued to contribute towards the wider deterioration of Yemen’s security landscape. This is an environment which became increasingly fragile as Yemeni militants, including members of AQAP, seized towns and territory across Yemen’s southern Abyan province – with the provincial capital Zinjibar and the town of Jaar being some of the most affected areas. Whilst the army has now recaptured many of these strongholds, the erratic nature of the current conflict and the potential that they could again come under the control of AQAP means, however, that they still remain a serious concern for the US and oil exporter Saudi Arabia – both of whom fear that the groups growing territorial grip in Yemen could give Al Qaeda’s regional wing a foothold near important oil fields and shipping routes through the Red Sea.

Taking the Fight to AQAP

Against this backdrop, Yemeni President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has pledged to take major steps towards restoring constitutional order by upping efforts to place increased pressure on AQAP. This has included making a number of moves to reform the military and restructure Yemen’s armed forces, in an effort to develop a military that is capable of taking the fight to AQAP; such as the dismissal of former President Saleh’s half-brother General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar who after some initial resistance eventually stepped down on the 24 April.4 In recent months, government security forces have also increased the number of attacks being conducted against AQAP operatives in the country’s southern provinces; such as the drone attack on 6 May which killed Fahd Mohammad Ahmed Al-Quso, a man best known for masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole ship in 2000.5 In September, Yemeni armed forces also succeeded in killing AQAP second-in-command Said al-Shehri.

Attempts by the new Yemeni government to ramp up efforts to combat AQAP have also been accompanied by the US resuming its military support to Yemen after cooperation was suspended during the country’s recent political turmoil. This has involved stepping up air strikes against targets believed to shelter suspected members of AQAP, sending US military experts to help train Yemeni troops and helping Yemenis with intelligence; including satellite imagery, pictures from drones and other means to help them locate AQAP targets.6 The aim of the US appears to be centred on building the Yemenis’ own capabilities, an approach which is consistent with the Obama administration’s renewed defence strategy which calls for a smaller US footprint in international operations. In addition to a visit to Yemen in May by the White House’s senior counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, who met with President Hadi in the country’s capital city, Sanaa, US President Barack Obama has also issued an executive order allowing sanctions to be imposed on anyone considered to be threatening the success of the current political transition in Yemen.

Nevertheless, while renewed attempts by both the Yemeni and US governments to step up efforts against AQAP may have enabled them to eliminate the threat posed by some of the group’s leading figures, the on-going intensification of military-focused counter-terrorism activities have also served to undermine broader attempts to bring about stability. For example, in response to the stepping up of military activity, AQAP have retaliated by conducting a number of systematic high-impact suicide attacks; as seen in Sanaa on 21 May where such an attack killed more than 90 people.7 Following reports in September that Yemeni forces had killed AQAP second-in-command Said al-Shehri, a car bomb targeting Yemeni Defence Minister Muhammad Nasir Ahmad in Sanaa also killed a further 11 people. Of equal concern, is the ability of aggressive counter-terrorism activities to have a wider radicalising effect upon some sections of Yemeni society. In particular, while AQAP presents itself as a populist movement by helping to provide the basic services that are lacking across much of the country, both the US and the Yemeni governments risk appearing as the aggressor among local tribes and communities who are likely to become affected, either directly or indirectly, by the escalation of armed conflict in Yemen’s southern regions. The current drive to increase drone attacks could therefore serve to exacerbate the anti-western agenda of groups such as AQAP, making it easier for the group to find new recruits in the period ahead; increasing the likelihood that Yemen could continue to be used as a springboard from which extremist groups might attempt to conduct future attacks against the west in the period ahead.


Unless military efforts to root out AQAP are accompanied by adequate attempts to address the large number of social, political and economic challenges currently facing the country – such as water shortages, rising food prices, and soaring unemployment – it is likely that AQAP will be able to continue exploiting these conditions to the benefit of Al-Qaeda’s global agenda for quite some time to come. Efforts to employ a reenergised counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen must therefore place a significant emphasis upon human security and ensure that military efforts are secondary to attempts to address Yemen’s socio-political and economic challenges. Otherwise they may merely serve to continue drip-feeding a discourse of anti-Americanism in the region and strengthen support for AQAP across Yemen in the period ahead.


1 BBC News, ‘Al-Qaeda wing claims Christmas Day US Flight Bomb Plot’, 28 December 2009 return to main text
2 Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question, Crisis Group Middle East Report N°114, 20 October 2011, pp. 27-29.–%20Yemens%20Southern%20Question.pdf return to main text
3 Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt, and Robert Worth, ‘Two-year manhunt led to killing of Awlaki in Yemen’, The New York Times, 30 September 2011 return to main text
4 International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch No 105, 1 May 2012 return to main text
5 Richard McGregor, ‘US disrupts aircraft bomb plot’, Financial Times, 7 May 2012, return to main text
6 Luis Ramirez, ‘US Military Role Deepens in Yemen’,, 17 May 2012 return to main text
7 BBC News, ‘UN Condemns Suicide Attack on Yemeni Army Parade’, 22 May 2012 return to main text

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