What is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?


What is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

Peter Welby

05 Oct 2015

The connection between the Charlie Hebdo gunmen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has brought the group back into the international spotlight. Peter Welby examines its origins and ideology. 

The reported link between some of the gunmen involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, also known as Ansar al-Sharia) has brought the group back into the global limelight. One of the two brothers behind the massacre reportedly went to Yemen in 2011.

Though eclipsed in international attention by the Syrian civil war, AQAP has long been one of the most prolific and effective jihadi groups in the world. Whether the attacks in Paris prove to have been directed by AQAP or simply inspired by the group, it fits into a pattern of an organisation that has had international reach since its formation, while remaining rooted in its Yemeni heartlands.

Al-Qaeda and Yemen

Al-Qaeda has always been closely associated with Yemen. The Arab units in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s – which proved the seedbed of al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups – contained a large contingent of Yemenis. Many of them returned to Yemen peacefully after 1989, some to be co-opted by the government. Others stayed with Bin Laden in the newly formed al-Qaeda after 1989, first in Sudan and later in Afghanistan; others returned to their homes to await further orders.

Al-Qaeda has always been closely associated with Yemen.

Such orders were not long in coming: the first known al-Qaeda attack was carried out in Aden, a globally strategic port in southern Yemen, in 1992. US troops were stationed in the city en route to their humanitarian mission in Somalia. Bin Laden – furious at the presence of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula and focused on a Prophetic injunction to " expel the infidels from the Arabian peninsula" – was determined that a significant attack would force a withdrawal. On 29 December, a Yemeni cell detonated bombs at two hotels, killing an Austrian tourist and a Yemeni hotel worker. The US troops were staying elsewhere.

Though the US troops left Aden shortly afterwards, the attack did not presage a general withdrawal from the peninsula. In 1998, the US negotiated an agreement to use Aden as a refueling point for its navy. This provided al-Qaeda another opportunity to strike. After a failed attempt in 1999, an operation was launched against the USS Cole when she docked for refueling in October 2000. The attack killed 17 US sailors (and the two bombers) and almost sank the ship.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's base was growing in Afghanistan. But as 9/11 approached, Bin Laden started to send recruits back to their home countries to set up cells in preparation for the crackdown that would follow. Each cell had its own emir (commander), and was semi-autonomous, but reported back to al-Qaeda Central (AQC). Some remained in Afghanistan, however, including Bin Laden's personal secretary, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. He fought with al-Qaeda at their Tora Bora cave redoubt, before fleeing to Iran where he was arrested. In 2003 he was extradited to Yemen, where he remained in prison until 2006.

In Saudi Arabia, the al-Qaeda members who had made it back from Afghanistan were active. A simultaneous attack on three Western compounds in May 2003 killed 30 people. The Saudi government countered the group's ensuing campaign of violence with a mixture of military assault and deradicalisation programmes, largely suppressing it by late 2005.

In the aftermath of 9/11, President Saleh of Yemen flew to the US, afraid the US government would attack Yemen in response to the atrocity, and pledged cooperation in the war on terror. Despite some successes by the Yemeni cells of al-Qaeda, its leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was tracked down by November 2002 and killed in a US drone strike. The Yemeni government cornered Haritihi's replacement a year later and took him alive.

They used their time in prison to plan their resurgence.

With most of its members in prison, al-Qaeda in Yemen appeared to be defunct. US attention focused elsewhere, and the Yemeni government was distracted by an unrelated insurgency in the north (see our backgrounder, ' What is the Houthi Movement?'). However, an unintended consequence of the government's co-optation of Afghan veterans in the early 1990s was that the Political Security Office (PSO, the internal intelligence and security service) was riddled with jihadi sympathisers. Many of the Yemeni al-Qaeda prisoners were held together at a PSO prison, where they were reunited with Wuhayshi. It seems likely that they used their time to plan the group's resurgence.

Twenty three prisoners, including Wuhayshi, also planned their escape. According to the official narrative, in February 2006 the group used their spoons and plates to tunnel 50 metres to the mosque next to their prison. It is, however, widely thought that they must have had help from within the PSO.


The group's experience of the government crackdown was utilised to create a much more potent organisation. Under the leadership of Wuhayshi, the group reorganised, and quickly started to launch new attacks. After a failed attack on oil installations in 2006, the reconstituted organisation initially focused on foreign interests within Yemen, with attacks on Spanish, Belgian, and Korean tourists and the US embassy through 2008 and 2009. In its justifications for the attacks, the group repeatedly emphasised the injunction to "expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula".

In November 2009, the rump of the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda merged with the Yemeni organisation to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group with ambitions far beyond Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The group sprang back into international consciousness with the attempted bombing of a plane over Detroit in December 2009; this was followed in 2010 with two attempts on the lives of successive British ambassadors, and an attempted bombing of synagogues in Chicago via bombs hidden in printer cartridges.

Ideology and Ambitions

In May 2010, AQAP released a statement laying out its goals, including the expulsion of "Jews and crusaders" from the Arabian Peninsula, the creation of a caliphate, the implementation of Sharia and the "liberation of Muslim lands". The turmoil in Yemen that accompanied the Arab Uprisings presented the group's best opportunity to achieve these goals. In May 2011, a statement described AQAP's aims to seize "all administrative, political, economic, cultural, monitoring, and other responsibilities" in the country. Through 2011 and 2012 it battled with security forces in south and central Yemen, to the point of seizing cities (though never for very long) and destroying army bases.

However, AQAP has never let go of its ambition to have reach across the world. In July 2010, it started to produce Inspire, an English language magazine that sought to provide ideological backing, encouragement and practical advice to individuals who wanted to carry out attacks in the West or join AQAP in Yemen. In May 2013, the magazine claimed that it had inspired the murder of a British soldier in London, and other issues have called for "jihad on America". It is this magazine that put Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier on its 'most wanted' list.

Indeed, international appeal has long been a significant part of AQAP's strategy. The December 2009 attempt on the US airliner over Detroit was carried out by a Nigerian who had travelled to join the group. Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 in a shooting at Fort Hood in 2009 was linked to Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher who formed a significant part of AQAP's western-focused propaganda until his death in a drone strike in 2011.

In 2013, Wuhayshi was appointed 'General Manager' of the global al-Qaeda network.

While AQAP dropped from international prominence with the worsening situation in Syria, it remained a key part of the global jihadi movement. In early 2013 Wuhayshi was appointed 'General Manager' (or second in command) of the global al-Qaeda network; this was likely a strategic decision in order to tie in the movement's most successful affiliate amid divisions in the jihadi movement in Syria. Wuhayshi was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in June 2015, delivering a massive setback for AQAP and the broader al-Qaeda leadership, with some analysts suggesting that the impact of Wuhayshi's death could be likened to the death of Osama bin Laden. The news of his death was confirmed by AQAP in a video statement that also announced the appointment of Qasm al-Rimi as the group's new leader.

However, ISIS' split from al-Qaeda and later declaration of a caliphate fractured the jihadi movement across the world (see our backgrounder, ' What is ISIS?'), and AQAP was no exception. Amid what were believed to be divisions within the group, for a long time it made no public statement on the split, though it appears finally to have come out against ISIS.

Supporters of ISIS have started to mount a challenge to AQAP's dominance of the jihadi landscape in Yemen by carrying out a number of attacks on Shia mosques in the country. Despite these efforts by ISIS, AQAP remains relatively unaffected by the group's growing presence in Yemen.

The recent advance of the Houthi movement in Yemen has also had an impact on AQAP, which views Zaydi Shia (the sect that the Houthis are drawn from) as heretical. AQAP has been involved in operations against the movement for several years, but in recent months has escalated its attacks. A bombing on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack in France targeted the movement, killing 38 people; two bombings in December had killed at least 80 more.

Against the backdrop of the Saudi-led coalition's fight against Houthi militants in Yemen, AQAP has been steadily gaining ground. Not only has AQAP used the conflict as cover for territorial gains, as both Saudi and Yemeni forces are otherwise occupied, it has also been exploiting the deep north-south divide in the country to fuel sectarian anxieties. Framing itself as the Sunni vanguard against the perceived Houthi Shia threat, AQAP has tried to garner greater support from among Yemen's predominantly Sunni population.

Since its resurgence in 2006, AQAP and its predecessors have largely operated from the tribal regions of south and central Yemen. There has been a significant effort to integrate into tribal structures, hampering efforts to defeat the group. So long as the reach of the Yemeni government does not stretch into the tribal areas, and provided AQAP does not succumb to internal divisions or alienate their hosts, the group's capacity to wreak destruction in Yemen and abroad is unlikely to diminish.

This article was originally published on 9 January 2015. It was updated on 5 October 2015. 


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Johnsen, G. (2013) 'The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and the Battle for Arabia' (London: Oneworld)
Wright, L. (2011) 'The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda's Road to 9/11' (London: Penguin)