Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series on the capabilities and impediments for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based al Qaeda franchise. Part two discusses challenges that the U.S., Yemeni and Saudi governments face in eliminating the militant group. Part three discusses the domestic and transnational constraints of AQAP.
Since its formation in 2009, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been al Qaeda's most active and prominent jihadist franchise. Based in Yemen's tribal badlands, the group has conducted an insurgency against the Yemeni government and security forces and has attempted to launch transnational attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United States while inspiring would-be jihadists in the West to launch their own attacks.
Though instability has plagued Yemen for virtually its entire modern history, the past year has left the state particularly weak due to the fractionalization of the government, the ouster of longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the intensification of rebel movements in the country's north and south. AQAP has taken advantage of the state's vulnerability to shift from operating mainly out of mountain hideouts to controlling and even governing small cities within Yemen, marking an important evolution in the group's capabilities and intentions. While the United States and Saudi Arabia are attempting to help manage Yemen's deep political divisions to prevent AQAP from further capitalizing on the chaos, the Yemeni government's structural weaknesses will allow a jihadist presence in the Arabian Peninsula to endure for the foreseeable future.
AQAP's strong ties to the al Qaeda core set the group apart from other regional al Qaeda nodes. There were many connections between the al Qaeda core and Yemen, including Osama bin Laden, whose family immigrated to Saudi Arabia from eastern Yemen in the early part of the 20th century. Yemen served as fertile recruiting grounds for Arab volunteers organized by bin Laden's mentor Abdullah Azzam to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and some key AQAP leaders even stayed with bin Laden through the Battle of Tora Bora in 2001. During that period, AQAP's founder and current leader, Nasir al-Wahayshi, served as bin Laden's personal secretary. These connections allow AQAP to serve as a rallying point for elements of the now-dismantled al Qaeda core and can encourage former al Qaeda jihadists and other militants in the region to provide financial, military and tactical support to AQAP.
AQAP also differs from other regional al Qaeda groups because it has not only seized but also has begun to govern select cities in southern Yemen. Since spring 2011, AQAP has proclaimed "Islamic Emirates" in the cities of Shaqra, Jaar, Azzan and Zinjibar in addition to controlling several checkpoints throughout the southern provinces. Besides those declared emirates, AQAP controls smaller towns in the southern provinces and operates religious schools and charities in some areas where the government is largely absent. These social services networks also allow AQAP to hide the roots of its financial support. Al-Islah and Dar al-Hikma al-Yemenia are the main charities that reportedly work closely with AQAP. Dar al-Hikma al-Yemenia has been formally accused of providing funds and technical assistance to al Qaeda leaders in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
While jihadists have long aspired to create an Islamic governmental entity, they have struggled to do so because they have traditionally spent most of their time plotting attacks, acquiring financing, training militants and evading local authorities. Since 9/11 most jihadist groups have devoted the bulk of their energies to merely surviving. The chaos in Yemen has provided AQAP with a unique opportunity. In this respect, the group's behavior is more similar to that of the Afghan Taliban in attempting to perform the services the government has failed to provide and thus build a base of popular support.
In order to help implement AQAP's vision of Islamic law, establish a justice system and govern towns that AQAP has taken over, the militant group established a specific division known as Ansar al-Sharia, which means "Helpers of Sharia." The name itself references a group from Islamic history called the Ansar, which comprised the residents of the city of Medina who helped the Prophet Mohammed and his followers found the world's first Islamic government in 622 after they had left Mecca. Like that group, AQAP believes it should collaborate with the indigenous tribal groups to form an Islamic political order.
It is important to note that AQAP's territorial gains since 2011 were made possible largely because the Yemeni government's focus on other matters — such as the violent rebel movements in the north and south and ongoing political turmoil — prevented it from containing AQAP. Backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia's respective logistical, military and financial resources — and local tribal support — Sanaa in recent weeks has led an offensive against AQAP in the southern provinces, resulting in the death of many militants and the disruption of AQAP's control. In the near term, it is unlikely that AQAP will be able to maintain control of the territory it gained over the past year, but the U.S., Saudi and Yemeni governments face constraints in their efforts to eliminate the militant group.