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Yemen: A Devastating Blow Against an al Qaeda Node?

5 MINS READDec 24, 2009 | 20:39 GMT
AFP/Getty Images
Summary
A Dec. 24 raid by the government of Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has reportedly killed several senior leaders of the group. If these reports are confirmed, the operation could have far-reaching implications for the group and for the security for the Arabian Peninsula.
At 4:30 a.m. local time on Dec. 24, the government of Yemen launched an operation in the Rafadh area of al-Said district in the Shabwa province southeast of Sanaa. The operation, which reportedly involved an airstrike and a coordinated ground assault, was apparently targeting militants associated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Yemeni authorities are reporting that between 31 and 34 AQAP members were killed and 29 arrested in the operation. The Yemeni sources also advise that among those killed and arrested in the raid were several foreigners, including militants from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq. According to STRATFOR sources, Anwar al-Awlaki the American-Yemeni cleric, who is well-known for his ties to U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan (who attacked a group of U.S Army soldiers at Fort Hood), was the primary target of the operation. STRATFOR sources have also said that as Yemeni authorities were watching al-Awlaki's safe house, a number of other AQAP leaders arrived at the location to meet with the radical cleric. Yemen is now reporting that it appears the operation also resulted in the deaths of other major AQAP leaders, including the group's leader and former secretary to Osama bin Laden, Nasir al-Wahayshi, his Saudi deputy, Abu-Sayyaf al-Shihri (who is a former Guantanamo detainee), and another high-ranking operative, Mohammad Ahmed Saleh Umer, who was seen just days before on a widely disseminated videotape preaching openly to crowds in Abyan. The Yemeni authorities are attempting to verify the identities of all those killed in the strike, in order to confirm the deaths of these senior AQAP figures. (click here to enlarge image) The operation to target al-Awlaki was apparently aided by his recent interview with the television network Al Jazeera. The interview, which was posted to Al Jazeera's Web site on Dec. 23, could have provided Yemeni or U.S. intelligence the opportunity to locate al-Awlaki. The interview — like the public speeches recently made by AQAP leaders in front of crowds in Abyan — may have been a deadly lapse of operational security. If it is confirmed that al-Wahayshi and al-Shihri were indeed killed in the strike, the operation would be a devastating blow to the resurgent al Qaeda node in the Arabian Peninsula. The organization has been under considerable pressure in recent weeks. Thursday's raid follows similar raids last week in Abyan and Sanaa provinces that resulted in the deaths of some 34 AQAP members, including high-ranking operative Mohammed Ali al-Kazemi, and the arrests of 17 other AQAP militants. This is not the first time al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Yemen have been struck. In November 2002, the CIA launched a predator drone strike against Abu Ali al-Harithi and five confederates in Marib. That strike essentially decapitated the al Qaeda node in Yemen and greatly reduced their operational effectiveness. The arrest of al-Harithi's replacement, Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, a year later, was another crippling blow to the organization. In 2003 as part of an extradition agreement with Iran, Nasir al-Wahayshi was returned to Yemen. In February 2006, al-Wahayshi and 22 other prisoners escaped from a prison in Sanaa, beginning a second phase of al Qaeda's operations in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula. With the help of other senior jihadist operatives like Qasim al-Rami — who reportedly managed to escape last week's raids — al-Wahayshi, who assumed leadership of the group in mid-2007, managed to rebuild the organizational structure of al Qaeda in Yemen into a more cohesive, structured and effective organization. Under al-Wahayshi's leadership, the al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Yemen have experienced a marked resurgence. Al-Wahayahi's organization in Yemen was even strong enough to adopt the al Qaeda-linked militants who were forced to flee Saudi Arabia in the face of the Saudi government's campaign against al Qaeda in the Kingdom, formally announcing the formation of AQAP in January 2009. Although al-Wahayshi's followers have not realized a great deal of tactical success, they have launched several high-profile attacks, including the Mar. 18, 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and the Aug. 28, 2009 assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister. As STRATFOR has long noted, effective leadership is a key element in the effectiveness of militant organizations. If Yemeni forces were in fact successful in killing al-Wahayshi, al-Shihri, Mohammad Ahmed Saleh Umer, Anwar al-Awlaki — in addition to the death of Mohammed Ali al-Kazemi last week — AQAP has indeed suffered a significant organizational blow. The long-term consequences of these developments in Yemen, and their consequences for the security of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, will depend largely upon the leadership transition plan the group had in place (if there was one), and the personal abilities of the man who will step in to assume leadership of the group. In the face of such adversity, it will take an individual with a rare combination of charisma and leadership to quickly rebuild AQAP's capabilities.

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