Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series on the capabilities and impediments of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based al Qaeda franchise. Part one discussed AQAP's growth since its formation and its links to the al Qaeda core. Part three discusses the domestic and transnational constraints of AQAP.
Saudi Arabia's Perspective
Saudi Arabia has been quick to support the Yemeni government with money and intelligence coordination in its fight against AQAP. The group comprises militants from Yemen, the now-defunct al Qaeda node in Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni Soldiers Brigade militant group, tribal forces and elements within the Yemeni security establishment. In the early to mid-2000s, al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia targeted government officials and infrastructure in a string of attacks, but since its merger with Yemen's al Qaeda node to form AQAP in 2009, the group has carried out only one attack in Saudi Arabia: the failed 2009 assassination attempt against Saudi counterterrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. However, AQAP militants have still threatened Saudi officials and interests within Yemen and even kidnapped the Saudi deputy consul in Aden, Yemen, in March 2012.
AQAP is influenced in part by a statement attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that said forces emanating from Yemen's Aden and Abyan areas would secure the victory of Allah. AQAP believes it will fulfill the prophesy of reviving Islam as a political order by spreading north into the holy lands of Saudi Arabia. Should AQAP establish its "emirate" in Yemen, which it sees as merely the first step in building a future caliphate, it could pose a direct national security threat to Saudi Arabia.While Riyadh may dismiss AQAP's religious claims, the group has made clear its intentions to ultimately move into Saudi Arabia. AQAP has several potential tools to destabilize or undermine the Saudi regime, including provoking sectarian conflict between Saudi Arabia's Sunni majority and Shiite minority, attacking Saudi oil infrastructure or trying to cause spillover violence by attacking the al-Houthi rebels around Saada along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border — an area of perennial concern to the Saudis. The possibility of AQAP establishing a stronghold in Yemen from which it could eventually launch attacks or move against Saudi Arabia, a much richer prize than Yemen, has motivated the Saudi regime to take assertive steps against AQAP before the problem grows too large.
The United States' Perspective
Washington's main concern regarding AQAP is the group's ability to launch transnational strikes against the United States and its interests abroad. AQAP has attempted these attacks in a number of ways, including encouraging radical Islamists in the United States to stage their own attacks and recruiting individuals from abroad with the necessary passports and visas to enter the United States. Intended attack targets include Western airliners, military bases and heavily populated city centers. The majority of planned AQAP attacks have involved improvised explosive devices (IEDs), some of which involve a suicide bomber. Moreover, all of the group's transnational attacks planned in Yemen have involved AQAP's lead bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who on several occasions has been able to pass explosive material through aviation security measures.
Despite AQAP's growing interest in holding territory in Yemen, it has not abandoned its intent to wage jihad directly against the West and its allies through terrorist strikes, as shown in its recent plot to destroy a U.S. airliner using an improved version of the "underwear" bomb that the group first tried in the failed Christmas Day attack in 2009. The more recent plot used an agent sent to infiltrate AQAP. While this indicates that U.S. and Saudi intelligence have increased their access to AQAP's network, the plot also demonstrates that AQAP is still capable of creating innovative explosive devices for use in transnational attacks.
Through Inspire magazine, the group's English-language propaganda publication, AQAP also continues to encourage radical Islamists in the West to carry out attacks in their respective countries. Although Inspire experienced a hiatus due to the September 2011 unmanned aerial vehicle strike that killed its editor, Samir Khan, the magazine has since resumed publishing.
Because al-Asiri remains active, the threat of transnational attacks persists. Though AQAP has not yet carried out an operationally successful attack, many attempts have come close. Similarly, although most of the recent AQAP-inspired attacks have failed or been thwarted, such as the November 2011 attempt to target police in New York City with pipe bombs or the July 2011 attempt to attack Fort Hood, this does not mean the threat has gone away. Even with close monitoring, it is difficult for intelligence agencies to effectively filter information in time to identify and thwart potential threats, as seen in the intelligence failures surrounding the failed Christmas Day bombing and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting.
Concerns about the threat emanating from Yemen originally prompted the United States to provide financial support to the Yemeni government in its fight against AQAP. Military assistance has increased recently, with the redeployment of U.S. trainers to Yemen, broadened rules of engagement on U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes, increased use of both CIA- and U.S. military-led airstrikes, and likely involvement of clandestine CIA or U.S. military personnel on the ground.
However, increased U.S. involvement comes with risks. U.S. military involvement is not popular with Yemeni citizens, many of whom view the United States with suspicion at best and outright hostility at worst. A more visible U.S. hand in military actions that often result in civilian casualties could provoke a backlash and lead to increased radicalization of tribesmen, whom AQAP courts for support.
The United States recognizes that it will never be able to completely eliminate the radical Islamist threat in Yemen. Its main focus, then, is to stop AQAP from being able to use the country as a launching pad for attacks against the West and its allies. Washington will accept a situation where AQAP's activity is focused primarily on the domestic struggle in Yemen, which could be managed over the long term. However, this goal is dependent on having a competent partner in the Yemeni government, which did not function particularly well even before the recent political upheaval left it all the more divided and distracted.
Yemen has only existed as a unified political entity since 1990, when the Yemen Arab Republic (more commonly known as North Yemen) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) merged. But in 1994 the former South Yemen tried to secede. The regime of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which had ruled North Yemen and then the unified country, made full use of jihadists, separatists and tribal militants to bring the south back into the fold. The civil war in 1994 ended with a country that was united politically but rife with internal divisions.
To a large extent, these divisions persist, and AQAP has been able to use them to gain support and protection from some tribal networks still hostile to Yemen's central government. In addition to AQAP's exploiting existing fissures in the country, the heavy political unrest that began in Yemen in 2011 shifted the Yemeni government's focus away from AQAP and other violent groups on the periphery, such as the southern secessionists, tribal fighters and the al-Houthi rebels in the north. This degree of lawlessness, especially in the southern provinces, allowed AQAP to expand and take control of territory. At the same time, it allowed AQAP to intensify attacks against Yemeni government targets, such as military bases, patrols, checkpoints and oil pipelines with small-arms ambushes, IEDs, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and a variety of other tactics.
Since the February election of new Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, the government slowly has begun to focus more time and resources on battling AQAP, particularly in the past few weeks. The efforts are especially focused in Hadi's native province of Abyan, from which he is trying to build a political center of support. These efforts have constricted AQAP's ability to hold territory and implement its version of Sharia and will stunt AQAP's efforts for the short term. However, the group has demonstrated that it is still capable of carrying out attacks elsewhere in Yemen, including in Sanaa. Despite the increased pressure from these operations, AQAP remains capable of mounting attacks against the Yemeni security and political apparatus.
However, in the longer term Sanaa's ability to contain AQAP's growth is questionable. There are still a number of military and internal security factions that owe their loyalty to Saleh. The United States has spent several years training a "new guard" whose leaders are composed entirely of members of the Saleh family to counter the Islamist sympathizers in the military. And while Washington would like to preserve that investment, it is now focused on helping the more neutral Hadi administration unite the government and consolidate power.
Hadi has fewer outright enemies than Saleh, but he also has fewer loyal supporters, which will complicate his efforts to balance the Saleh clan and the U.S.-trained new guard against the old guard that is filled with Islamist sympathizers and led by Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
Aside from the severely divided military, security and intelligence apparatus, Hadi is also trying to cope with a weak economy amid demands for payoff from disaffected tribes and civil servants, as well as a potential tribal backlash from the current military offensive against AQAP and U.S. airstrikes. Because of these constraints, it will be difficult to maintain a prolonged and consistent focus on the battle against AQAP.