Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate is alive and well

Katherine Zimmerman Gulf of Aden Team Lead, The American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project
Font Size:

Yesterday’s revelation of a new al Qaeda terrorist plot is a reminder that the group’s Yemen-based franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is strong and ready to kill Americans.

Seized as it was being transported to the suicide bomber, the new underwear bomb was designed to elude U.S. airport scanners and was likely aimed at a U.S.-bound aircraft. Timed to commemorate the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, the plot was well underway even as American officials denied there were any planned attacks.

The death of Osama bin Laden may have struck at the core of al Qaeda, but its Yemen-based franchise is alive and well. Even the killing of AQAP’s American-born leader, Anwar al Awlaki, has failed to end the group’s transnational operations. The bottom line is that the al Qaeda franchise is stronger than it was in 2009.

Last year, AQAP took advantage of the widespread unrest in Yemen to secure and expand its area of control. It launched a territorial offensive run through its insurgent arm, Ansar al Sharia, in March 2011. The result is a swath of territory in south Yemen connected to historical sanctuaries running up to the Saudi Arabian border that has vastly expanded the area in which AQAP members can travel. Recruiting efforts have paid off as well. Three years ago, AQAP consisted of a network of a few hundred individuals. Today, estimates range to over a thousand militants in Yemen.

A perfect storm of political, sectarian and territorial turmoil in Yemen has distracted the government from the counter-terrorism fight, and made AQAP and Ansar al Sharia’s successes possible. Defections have divided Yemen’s security forces, with security, defected military and tribal factions fighting in the capital, Sana’a. In the third largest city, Taiz, security forces and tribal faction have clashed; and Shiite al Houthi rebels have attacked Salafist areas in north Yemen.

As a result, some in Washington were slow to call for the removal of Yemen’s erstwhile strongman, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, fearing the worst. Saleh had been America’s counter-terrorism partner in Yemen, but in reality did little to take on AQAP and regularly used the al Qaeda presence as a bargaining chip to better his political and personal fortunes. Yemen’s new president has pledged counter-terrorism cooperation, but Washington must be cognizant of the Yemeni government’s priorities as it tries to stabilize its fractured country.

American strategy against AQAP focuses on eliminating its leadership and on developing Yemeni capabilities to defeat AQAP and Ansar al Sharia. But the muddle of Yemen’s “spring” has frustrated the execution of U.S. strategy over the past year. AQAP’s founding leaders were operating in the open as late as early February 2012 and the Yemeni military has only had limited victories in fighting the insurgency in the south. Nor is it clear whether the Yemeni military — now in the midst of a major restructuring — will be willing or able to defeat Ansar al Sharia.

Deteriorating security conditions in Yemen drove the suspension of American security assistance programs in early 2011, and those programs have only recently resumed. An uptick in reported drone strikes in Yemen may be the result of increased intelligence cooperation or a shift in strategy, but AQAP’s leadership remains by and large intact.

Despite much-trumpeted U.S. counter-terrorism successes over the past year degrading the group’s leadership, AQAP has proven itself surprisingly resilient. Operations have continued apace and a new generation of leaders replaced those who had been killed. Some suspect that the U.S. counter-terrorism operations didn’t even result in a lull in attempted attacks in 2011; rather, the unique opportunity to expand control in Yemen may have trumped opportunities to attack the American homeland.

At the end of the day, Awlaki has left a successful legacy as a recruiter of foreign operatives for the group; he played a key role in connecting the first underwear bomber to AQAP in 2009. Still, terrorist groups are able to regenerate: AQAP operative Fahd al Quso, who reportedly replaced Awlaki, was probably killed in a May 6 drone strike. But AQAP’s chief bomb maker, Ibrahim al Asiri, remains at large, and may have created the device now in the FBI’s possession. That bomb is said to be more advanced than the one from December 2009 and could have foiled airport security again.

In 2009, after the last attack against the U.S. almost succeeded, President Barack Obama pledged to “use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us.” AQAP may have been disrupted, it may even have been partially dismantled, but as we learned this week, it is far from defeated.

Katherine Zimmerman is the Gulf of Aden Team Lead for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.