Last weekend’s foiled bombing attempt emanating from Yemen highlights again the resilience and persistence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the difficulties the Yemeni and US governments face in addressing the threat. In many ways, AQAP is a more serious threat than AQ central, given the aggressive US targeting of the core AQ leadership, its relatively limited ability to manoeuvre and communicate, and its reliance on the protection of the tribes.
By contrast, AQAP’s senior leadership is intact, and it operates in an environment where the Yemeni Government retains primacy over anti-AQAP operations and yet is stretched by having to address uprisings in the north and south unrelated to AQAP’s activities. AQAP has grown worryingly in stature over the past 18 months and despite the failure of its two bombing attempts, it remains of great concern because of its aspirations for global reach and its ability to plan and conduct four lines of operation simultaneously:
- Targeting the near enemy. The significant number of Saudi members of AQAP has meant that the House of Saud remains a key focus for elements of AQAP, as shown by the attack against Prince Muhammad bin Nayef last year and the unsuccessful infiltration of several AQAP members that ended in a shootout on the Yemen-Saudi border in October 2009. That the Saudi elements of AQAP continue to look north is evidenced by AQAP Saudi number two Said al-Shihri’s recent video release, directed at a Saudi audience.
- Targeting the far enemy. The US remains an AQAP focus, as attested by the foiled bombing attempts at Christmas and this weekend, as well as the Fort Hood shooting. The US takes this threat seriously, as this rather prescient piece shows. But the US is committed elsewhere, the Yemeni Government is concerned about seeking overt US assistance, and the operating environment in Yemen is as complex as that in Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is a difficult task to subdue AQAP.
- Establishing a safe haven. While spectacular plots and the targeting of Western interests propels AQAP into the public consciousness on occasion, what is often missed is the regular assassinations of Yemeni security officials in the south by AQAP, and the occasional large attack against Yemeni security forces or prisons. By co-opting tribes and dissuading the Yemeni security services from extending the Government writ into “their” provinces, AQAP hopes to carve out an area of territory. As this Lowy paper argued, tribal loyalty can never be guaranteed, so highlighting the vulnerability of the Yemeni security forces is a means for AQAP to secure tribal compacts.
- Targeting the world. AQAP takes the cyber jihad seriously. The recent release of the second volume of the English-language Inspire magazine highlights AQAP’s understanding of the cyber world to do exactly what its title suggests. While its Arabic language productions are obviously for regional consumption, if AQAP aspires to a global following, then broadcasting its message in the world’s lingua franca is mandatory. It would be a pretty safe bet that Inspire is getting more interest and readership in many capitals of the world than its Arabic language equivalent, Salah al-Malahim.
*Dr Rodger Shanahan was the Chief of Army Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and is now a non-resident Fellow at the Institute. He is also an Army Reserve Fellow at the Land Warfare Studies Centre.
**This first appeared on The Interpreter.