Yemen: Al Qaeda's Resurgence

8 MINS READApr 22, 2008 | 20:31 GMT
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Al Qaeda's node in Yemen has evolved over the past few years. After a temporary decline following the death of one leader and arrest of another, al Qaeda in Yemen appears to be resurging under new leadership, as evidenced by a recent increase in attacks in Yemen. It does not look likely that the group will diminish or cease small-scale attacks any time soon.
Statements released by al Qaeda in Yemen — namely, in its publication, Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battle) — have provided further insight into the group's new operational doctrine and target- selection criteria. Moreover, they — along with the timing of attacks following Sada al-Malahim's release — have provided a lens through which to analyze the evolution of al Qaeda in Yemen over the past few years.

Al Qaeda in Yemen's Leadership

Following the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Yemen became a battleground for counterterrorism forces and al Qaeda. There was initial success in the fight against al Qaeda — notably, the CIA-controlled drone hit on then-leader of al Qaeda in Yemen Abu Ali al-Harithi in late 2002 and the subsequent arrest of his replacement Muhammed Hamdi al-Ahdal in late 2003. The combination of these operations in such a short time period helped to cripple al Qaeda in Yemen's operational capability momentarily. With a recent increase in violence in Yemen, al Qaeda appears to be resurging under the leadership of Nasir al-Wahayshi, an ethnic Yemeni who spent time in Afghanistan while serving as a lieutenant under Osama Bin Laden. He returned to Yemen in 2003 through an extradition deal with the Iranian government and subsequently escaped from a high-security prison outside of Sanaa in 2006 along with Jamal al-Badawi (leader of the cell that carried out the suicide bombing of the USS Cole). Al-Wahayshi also maintains close ties with Qasim al-Rami, who was suspected of having been involved with the operational planning of the suicide attack on a group of Spanish tourists in Marib in July 2007. The new leadership's established ties with al Qaeda prime have given it experience in leading and operating a traditionally structured al Qaeda node and the connections necessary to make such a node successful. In addition, the new senior leadership enjoys ties to veterans of al Qaeda in Yemen, such as al-Badawi. This, coupled with the fact that al-Wahayshi is an ethnic Yemeni, gives him the credibility and connections needed to recruit new members and operate effectively for the foreseeable future. While a drastic increase in operational sophistication has not been seen yet — the group is concentrating on small-scale attacks while avoiding suicide operations and large bombings — the node has demonstrated the ability to launch multiple attacks in different locations within a short period of time. These attacks show that the group has adopted a fairly traditional jihadist target set, concentrating its efforts on symbolic Western targets (recently the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and a Western housing compound), the energy sector (French, Chinese and Canadian interests) and elements of the security apparatus (small-scale attacks on security forces in the Marib province).

The Significance of Sada al-Malahim

Alongside this growth in operational capability, another trend has developed that could allow anticipation of further incidents in the short term. An element of the group's resurgence is evident in the release of public statements, recently in the form of a publication entitled Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battle). It has appeared on radical Islamist Web sites, with the first issue surfacing in January. While that first issue was fairly simplistic, the second included a statement by a fighter who explained his rationale for choosing to stay and fight in Yemen instead of traveling to Iraq: He stayed in order to attack the oil and energy sectors in Yemen that are helping to fuel Western operations in Iraq and elsewhere. This statement is in line with the attacks on the Chinese oil field and the French pipeline in early April. With the production of Sada al-Malahim, parallels between al Qaeda in Yemen and other al Qaeda nodes begin to appear. The most notable parallel is with the Saudi al Qaeda node, which, at its peak, was issuing statements and publications (including its magazine Sawt Al Jihad). The ability to produce statements and launch attacks simultaneously signifies a fairly competent and capable node. One secondary element to this comparison that warrants attention is the fact that while al Qaeda prime and various other nodes often release statements filled with threats, they rarely follow through on those specific threats and do not attack in the immediate aftermath; in contrast, al Qaeda in Yemen has proven that it not only follows through on the threats within its statements, it does so in a timely manner:
  • June 2007: Al Qaeda in Yemen issues a statement demanding that the Yemeni government release a number of prisoners being held on terrorism-related charges.
  • July 2007: No prisoners are released, and a suicide bomber strikes a group of Spanish tourists near an archaeological site near Marib. In a video released on the Internet, the bomber claims he carried out the attacks in the name of the Yemen Soldiers Brigade, a group that is directly linked to al Qaeda in Yemen.
  • January 2008: The first issue of Sada al-Malahim is released. The publication includes a demand for the release of prisoners being held by the Yemeni government on terrorism-related charges. No prisoners are released.
  • Jan. 18: A group of Belgian tourists is attacked in the Hadramout region; two tourists are killed.
  • March 13: The second issue of Sada al-Malahim is released and includes an interview with an alleged fighter who claims he chose to stay in Yemen in order to attack oil and energy interests that are fueling Western operations in Iraq.
  • March 18: Mortars are fired at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, although they miss the embassy compound and hit a local girl's school. Shortly thereafter, there were a series of attacks on targets related to the energy sector, following through on the threats made in the second Sada al-Malahim statement.
The close timing between the releases of the Sada al-Malahim issues and the subsequent attacks indicate that the group has regained the ability to launch orchestrated attacks. Although the scope and sophistication of these attacks is somewhat limited at this time, the group indicated in their second issue of Sada al-Malahim that the new operational doctrine includes a campaign of continuous low-level attacks — a break from the large-scale attacks that have become symbolic of al Qaeda prime. While this could be interpreted as an indication of the group's current operational capability, it can also be seen as an evolution in strategy. As the group's history in Yemen has shown, launching a few large-scale operations does not achieve the desired effect. After the USS Cole was attacked, the Western presence in the Arab Peninsula did not dissolve, and the attack certainly did not drive away Western energy corporations. Thus, the group is adopting an operational doctrine somewhat similar to that seen in Iraq: a continuous flow of attacks designed to wear down the target's resolve. This evolution in strategy shows that not only has al Qaeda in Yemen been able to learn from its own failures, it has also recognized the operational effectiveness of the tactics employed by al Qaeda nodes elsewhere and adjusted accordingly. This development — along with the apparent increase in organization and leadership quality within the group — does not indicate that the group will diminish or that their attacks will cease in the near future. Yet the increased organization within the group and the resultant release of statements prior to attacks are apparently making the group's operations slightly more predictable. While the current operational doctrine calls for a continuous flow of low-level attacks, which are nearly impossible to anticipate, the flow has been punctuated by numerous higher-level operations associated with the release of these statements. As a result, future releases of Sada al-Malahim and other statements by the group can serve as indicators that a significant attack (or attacks) on Western targets in either the political realm or the energy sector is coming soon. The high rate of attacks in recent weeks would appear to demonstrate that the group is devoted to its new operational doctrine and will continue to follow it until they are confronted. But if the Yemeni government's long-term record of counterterrorism operations is any indication, the node will remain largely unmolested by security forces. One of the main reasons for this is the presence of a small, but fairly powerful, Salafist minority within the Yemeni military and intelligence apparatus. This presence makes openly condemning and actively addressing the al Qaeda threat a difficult task for the government. It is likely that the attacks will continue and the scope of the attacks will continue to broaden as al Qaeda in Yemen continues growing in organizational strength and sophistication.

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