Last week, members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized control of the Al`Adayn directorate in Yemen’s southern Ibb governorate after violent clashes with Houthi rebels in central Yemen. The Houthis, discussed in Part I of our series on Yemen, have recently rapidly expanded their territory, seizing control of the capital at the end of September, forcing the Prime Minister to resign, and obtaining a generous UN-brokered ceasefire agreement that allowed them to name the next Prime Minister. Last Tuesday, the Houthis had captured the port city of Hudeida extending their reach to the Red Sea just hours after President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had named a new prime minister.
The Houthis and AQAP have been operating in different geographical areas and with different agendas, but now they appear to be on a crash course with AQAP ramping up violent attacks against Houthis to supposedly defend Yemeni Sunnis from the Shiite Houthis. Clashes last Thursday saw at least 12 people killed.
Like the Houthis, the AQAP presence in Yemen isn’t new. The group officially formed in 2009 through the union of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of Al-Qaeda. However, the group’s roots reach back to the late 1980s when President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime dispatched Yemeni mujahedeen, recently returned from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, to combat the Marxist government of South Yemen in his successful bid to unite North and South Yemen. Other Arab fighters from the conflict against the Soviets in Afghanistan also entered Yemen where they formed various groups such as Islamic Jihad in Yemen, Army of Aden Abyan, and Al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY) who would become known for the USS Cole bombing in 2000.
The bombing of the USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks brought increased focus by the United States on terrorist groups within Yemen with the Bush administration putting pressure on the Saleh regime to engage in counterterrorist operations against these groups. The US sent Special Forces and intelligence personnel to the country and also conducted a drone strike in 2002, the first in the region, which resulted in the death of AQY’s leader. Despite US efforts, the Saleh regime repeatedly faced accusations over the years of releasing Jihadis from prison as a means to ensure that the US continue to support counterterrorism efforts in the country, thus blunting US attacks on extremists in the country. Several Al-Qaeda members released from these prisons would go on to form the core of AQAP with members of the Saudi Arabian branch of Al-Qaeda who fled into Yemen.
The chaos brought on by the Arab Spring and the stepping down of President Saleh allowed AQAP to thrive in the southern part of the country where its numbers have grown from 200-300 individuals in 2009 to close to 1,000 members.
Since its formation in 2009, AQAP has been a constant threat on the US and Yemeni radars as its members have been deemed responsible for various attacks such as the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a 2009 US-bound flight to Detroit, and a suicide bomber who killed over ninety Yemeni soldiers rehearsing for a military parade in 2012.
As a result, the US has maintained counterterrorism operations mainly through the use of drone strikes; the Obama administration has carried out 79 drone attacks against AQAP targets since the group’s formation. In April 2014, the US ramped up counterterrorism activities in the country, engaging in air strikes and joint operations with Yemeni forces. However, the result of these operations is unclear, as some policymakers fear that the drone strikes will engender more anger and civilian deaths than achieve results.
Between the Houthis’ power play in the North, and the continued activities of AQAP in the south, Yemen is wrought with instability and all signs point to this problem continuing in the near future. The AQAP targeting of the Houthis to, in their words, defend Sunnis, is particularly alarming as it could lead to wider Sunni-Shiite violence in the country. The US and the international community at large, needs to pay greater attention to the ongoing events in Yemen. Continued focus on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while important, could potentially lead to the US “taking its eye off the ball” when it comes to AQAP who already has a history of trying to attack both US and international targets. The US must tread carefully and try to ensure that devoting significant resources towards its international coalition against ISIS does not degrade its ability to keep AQAP in check, or even better, to push them back from any gains they have made in recent years.
Photo by US Air Force/ Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/ Public Domain (image was modified)