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Situation Assessment 11 June, 2012

Yemen and al-Qaeda


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


The Yemeni capital of Sanaa was struck by yet another grave suicide bomber attack on May 21; this time an al-Qaeda attack killing 90 soldiers who were preparing for a military parade being put on by the post-Saleh government to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Yemeni reunification.  Partisans of Islamic Law, an al-Qaeda offshoot led by its nominal emir, Jalal Baleidi, a Yemeni from the governorate of Abyan, claimed responsibility for the attack (widely dubbed the "Seventy square Operation" as it took place in "Sabeen Square" or "Seventy Square").

al-Qaeda is just one in a litany of other daily worries with which the average Yemeni citizen has to contend, with a number of administrative districts within Abyan and Shabwah, both in the former South Yemen ("the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen"), having come under the group's control. Indeed, whichever al-Qaeda mastermind decided to turn Yemen into a base of operations and a safe-haven for fugitive members of the rump group must have been truly intelligent because the organization has come under intense pressure elsewhere over the past decade. In particular, there was what the US called the "War on Terror" in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, a campaign that put an end to the safe-haven which al-Qaeda had built for itself in Afghanistan with the cooperation of its ally, the Taliban. Yemen became one of the alternatives for the group, which was looking for a place where its fighters could gain respite from US pressure.

Another factor was the war waged by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against the takfiri* strand of Islamist thought to which al-Qaeda subscribes, in a bid to dismantle al-Qaeda's ideology, which the Saudis' own state-sanctioned Salafi school of Islamic jurisprudence had previously sponsored and embraced.  This was acutely felt with the Saudis' "carrot and stick" policy, making use of religious clerics to "rehabilitate" al-Qaeda fighters. In the years following 2003, these campaigns drove al-Qaeda fighters to seek refuge in Iraq and Yemen.

al-Qaeda's Iraqi assets soon came undone, however, through the efforts of the Iraqis themselves, who had initially sheltered these fighters in the belief that they could be useful in the fight against the Americans and would not interfere in the Iraqi people's more tolerant beliefs. The breakdown of that relationship only added to the blows sustained by the organization in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. The birth of "al-Qaeda for Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula" (widely known in the West as AQAP) merged the previously separate al-Qaeda operations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Yemeni national Nasser Abdulkarim al-Wuhaishi (going by the name Abu Baseer), and a Saudi deputy, Said Ali al-Shahri (going by Abu Sufyan al-Azadi). This new organization declared that its war would target three enemies: the United States of America, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's ruling al-Saud family, and the regime of then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which it accused of collaborating with the other two, and of bringing unbelievers to country.

This is where a novel and unique form of organization took shape. Apart from Yemen, al-Qaeda also had a presence in Somalia, in the shape of the Shabab movement. Some of the fugitive al-Qaeda members in Iraq started re-forming their cells, and there are al-Qaeda sleeper cells in Greater Syria (or the Bilad al-Sham region that encompasses Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Palestine, and western Iraq). This is evidence of a linear movement toward both the Red Sea and the adjacent Mediterranean Sea, with the aim being the destruction of US interests in the region.

From its Yemeni base, al-Qaeda has been able to carry out significant, debilitating attacks against the US, with the most notable being, arguably, the October 2000 strike against the USS Cole warship and the September 2008 attack on the US Embassy in Sanaa. AQAP's other main target was the Saudi royal family, who they succeeded in penetrating with a meticulously planned and adroitly executed operation during which there was an elite assault on the stronghold of the very Saudi royal Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Deputy Minister of Interior who led the Saudi campaign against al-Qaeda and who had been tasked by his father, Prince Nayef, with battling and dismantling al-Qaeda, a cause for which large sums of money and a number of Salafist clerics had been put at his disposal. The clerics had been recruited by the Saudi regime to use religious arguments to persuade former al-Qaeda members to declare the error of their previous ways.

AQAP was nonetheless able to plan and carry out an attack that relied on deceit, surprise, sensitive information, and a high level of skill. These came together for the preparation of a weapon in the form of would-be suicide bomber Abdullah Hassan Tale Asiri,[1] the suicide bomber who, in 2009, attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Despite its failure, the attempt to assassinate him drew a lot of attention to al-Qaeda and Yemen because it indicated that there was a well-disciplined and well-informed organization based in Yemeni territory. It was also the first assassination attempt against a royal family member since 2003, receiving special attention since Asiri had passed through a metal detector and stayed with the Prince's bodyguards for over 24 hours before gaining the audience.

Why Yemen?

There are some unavoidable questions about the reasons and justifications for the choice of Yemen - particularly in the South - as a site for AQAP. To understand these reasons, the following points must be taken into consideration:

Yemen acts as an intersection for demographic and geographical factors that come together to form ideal "pockets" of persistent rebellion. In the North, the former Imamate regime continued to resist the forces of the September 1962 revolution, which overthrew it until national reconciliation was agreed in March 1970. In the South, British colonial forces conceded to the Yemeni revolutionary movement after four years of fighting (October 14, 1963 to November 30, 1967). Even after the unification of the two Yemens, the military has failed to put down the Houthi rebellion in the Saada Governorate, despite having fought six campaigns between 2004 and 2010. All of these examples point to a climate conducive to the sustainability of revolution, one in which rebels can build and retain bases in the periphery of Yemen's territory.

During the 1994 civil war, Ali Salem al-Bayd - then vice president of unified Yemen and secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which had ruled South Yemen prior to unification - declared that the South had seceded, and that the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was re-claiming its legal statehood. While the secessionist forces had been put down, the actions of the unified state's elite, who had been made proud by victory, continued to feed secessionist desires among Southerners. This disenchantment is now openly expressed by some factions of what has come to be called the Southern Movement, which benefits from the state of instability prevailing during Saleh's reign and since his removal.

While all of the Southern Movement's constituent groupings have declined the offer of an alliance with al-Qaeda (a suggestion first put forward in an audio recording by AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhaishi released in May 2009),[2] the dispute between the secessionists and the central government creates an ideal situation for the spread of al-Qaeda in the former South Yemen.[3] The acceptance of AQAP among South Yemenis was due, in part, to the role played by Jalal Baleidi, the "emir" of the Partisans of Islamic Law (Ansar al Sharia) group, who managed to create a sense of friendliness between his organization and the tribesmen of South Yemen. Here, a social aspect is added to the factors of geography and demographics in helping to foster rebellion.

Yemen's location in an area of strategic importance makes the presence of AQAP a major threat to the security of states opposed to al-Qaeda. As demonstrated by the disruptions caused by Somali-based piracy, Yemen's proximity to both crucial international shipping lanes (especially the Bab al Mandeb strait) and the Gulf, with its vast reserves of oil and financial assets, make it an ideal location to wage jihad against "international oppressors," such as the US. In addition, it also serves as a base to launch attacks against local allies of the US, such as the Saudi ruling family.

The ability to rely on the tribal factor for recruitment in Yemen (and in Saudi Arabia) allows AQAP to win new supporters prepared to carry out "martyrdom operations," enhancing the al-Qaeda arsenal. Most of the individuals within AQAP's ranks are Yemeni and Saudi nationals, as well as the "refugees" who left Afghanistan and Pakistan after Osama bin Laden was assassinated by US naval commandos. These factors have allowed AQAP to spread, a fact for which "Seventy Square Operation" was clear evidence.

The presence of Saudi AQAP members in Abyan also provides the ability to launch new penetrations into Saudi's interior, making use of cross-border tribal connections. This is particularly likely given that the Partisans of Islamic Law give little credence to the Saudi ruling family's claims to "protect the Two Holy Mosques," and view the Arab Peace Initiative (originally championed by King Abdullah) as proof that the al-Saud family is spearheading attempts at reconciliation between the Arabs and the Zionist enemy.

A number of factors indicate that AQAP is solidifying its position in Yemen, including the establishment of an effective media arm, including organs like the Sada ("echo" in Arabic) newspaper, a number of video releases, and a cyber warfare presence.[4] Newly arrived fighters who left Afghanistan and Pakistan also provide AQAP with the knowledge and technical skill required to fabricate weapons and improvise explosive devices and suicide belts.

The Actors


It seems obvious that multiple actors are party to the conflict in Yemen; nonetheless, they can be grouped into two separate camps, with al-Qaeda at one of the extreme ends. al-Qaeda may be able to forge temporary alliances with different groups, even those with which it disagrees on points of ideology. The important matter for al-Qaeda is to unsettle the domestic situation in Yemen in a manner that allows it freedom of action and the ability to spread. An example of this can be found in some of the tribal sheikhs who, driven by either personal or tribal interests, occasionally make short-lived deals with al-Qaeda, or certain clerics aligned with al-Qaeda.

Should the Yemeni government fail to cripple al-Qaeda and dismantle the organization, the country will become a refuge not just for those fleeing the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, but also for the Shabab movement in Somalia if a Somali-Ethiopian alliance succeeds in crushing the al-Qaeda affiliate. In such a situation, Ethiopia will certainly be added to the list of enemies to be targeted by al-Qaeda from Yemen, particularly given that the Shabab are also backed by Ethiopia's arch-rival, Eritrea.

At present, the side opposing al-Qaeda consists of the Yemeni government, the Saudi regime, and the United States.

The United States

Especially since September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has been the US's primary enemy on the world stage. While the attack drove the administration of then-President George W. Bush to declare its "War on Terror," leading to the occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans failed to put a stop to al-Qaeda, or to its regional and global networks. A report discussed by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 21, 2010 came to the conclusion that AQAP had been able to spread and adopt unconventional methods in its battle against US interests in the Middle East and beyond. The report mentions one particular method exploited by AQAP: the recruitment of US citizens, including former soldiers who have gone AWOL (or deserters) and converted to Islam, as well as those convicted of criminal charges. In a bid to lure them to Yemen, AQAP encourages them to marry Yemeni women and form families in the country. The report documents 36 American ex-convicts arriving in Yemen in the previous year alone.[5] While American officialdom has been unable to prove that any of these individuals received training from AQAP, the author's describe the very existence of this phenomenon as troubling.

The report states that AQAP's primary goals are both short-term and unchanging, such as downing an American airplane, pressuring NATO to pull its troops from Afghanistan, or attacking US interests wherever they can. What truly worries the Americans, however, is the ability of al-Qaeda to develop its tactics and strategy, and to make use of asymmetrical warfare, a method which al-Qaeda performs very well, to threaten the interests and security of the US and its people.

For the Americans, the uncovering of the AQAP plot to use the young Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab to carry out a bombing on Christmas Day 2009 was a worrying indication of how advanced al-Qaeda's operations were becoming. The foiling of this plot was only achieved through the father of the would-be bomber, who filed a report with the US Embassy in Nairobi, in which he complained of his son's extremist religious beliefs after the latter had over-stayed his student visa in Yemen and remained in that country.  This prompted US security agencies to follow the young man in question, and ultimately to arrest him as he attempted to implement his attack.

The US views the threat of al-Qaeda's expanding from Saudi Arabia and Yemen into Jordan and Syria, and the threat this would pose to Israeli security, with deep anxiety. Such a development would add another worry to the list of burdens the US already carries. It would bring al-Qaeda a step closer to the previously declared aim of a geostrategic cordon stretching from Somalia to the city of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, which would herald an increase in al-Qaeda's activities. In a press conference arranged after the NATO summit in Chicago, which followed the "Seventy Square Operation" in Sanaa, President Barack Obama spoke of his deep concern about what was happening in Yemen. This statement, and other indicators of anxiety on the part of US counter-terrorism experts, suggests that American involvement in the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen is set to increase. Obama offered assurances, however, that the US would not involve any of its regular military forces in the operation, but would instead be contributing its resources, technical skills, expertise, and training capabilities. This would add to its burgeoning responsibilities for security cooperation with its regional partners, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Arab states.


The Yemeni government is al-Qaeda's primary target within that country; the government has been waging a war in a bid to kick out its scourge. In addition, al-Qaeda's ability to penetrate the Yemeni Armed Forces, and carry out the "Seventy Square Operation" through the use of a suicide bomber, a former soldier in the Yemeni army, brings to mind a trio of pressing security problems: al-Qaeda, the Houthi rebellion in the North, and the Southern secessionist movement. However, there is also a fourth point, which will remain in place until the post-Saleh government has been successful in cementing its rule and spreading security and stability. This point relates to the intrigues led by former President Saleh and his clique continuation of the heightening instability in Yemen. Alongside the security concerns, there are also a number of threatening social problems with which the Yemeni government must deal. Chief among these is poverty, followed by drought, deep-rooted administrative and economic corruption, a lack of social harmony, and the Salafist movement in the form of al-Zandani and his followers.

This is where the gravity of Saleh's legacy becomes clear. Defeating the Houthi insurrection, which is regaining prominence amid the weakened security environment of post-Saleh Yemen, fighting poverty and al-Qaeda, and improving the situation in the South would lead to improved economic and political circumstances. All of these factors make support for the new Yemeni government an imperative for countries seeking to combat al-Qaeda, but this implies that the Yemeni government will also be beholden to the demands and conditions set by the donors, further complicating Yemen's socio-political realities.

The Former Regime's Position Regarding al-Qaeda

The bloody attack carried out by al-Qaeda in Sabeen Square raises a number of important questions about the security forces, primarily the Republican Guard and the Special Anti-Terrorism Forces - supporters of former President Saleh are prominent within both bodies, with the former still being led by one of his sons.

Saleh was well known for his skills at political maneuvering, skills that were never more apparent than during the extended period he stalled the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council plan to end the crisis that ended his rule. The same skills allowed him to build better relations with the Americans, whom he was able to drag into his conflict with the Yemeni Socialist Party in the early 1990s. The 2000 attack against the USS Cole warship precipitated an increase in American aid for Saleh's regime in terms of counter-terrorism and other forms of training, as well as political support extended to Saleh, such as when he was faced with the Houthi rebellion. Even during the popular revolt that toppled Saleh, the Sanaa residence of US Ambassador Gerald Feirstein continued to serve as a venue for political dialogue and deal-making. Whenever US support was delayed or reduced, Saleh could always play the al-Qaeda and terrorism card.

The deteriorating situation described above has helped al-Qaeda foment its presence in Yemen, while the Yemeni government has been unable to cripple the organization or freeze its sources of funding. AQAP's supposed desired to move its operation to the frontier with Saudi Arabia may also compel it to infiltrate the Hadhramaut Valley, al-Jouf, and Maarib, making matters increasingly difficult for the Yemeni authorities, who are already confronting al-Qaeda in Abyan and Raddah. In short, al-Qaeda is presently intensifying its activities, using Yemen as a base, while at the same time it is locked in a conflict with an increasingly American-backed Yemeni government. This American support for the Yemeni government will lead to an increased targeting of US interests by the group, both regionally and throughout the world. This factor and its probable results should give rise to heightened concerns in the broader region.


This paper has attempted to analyze and summarize the very complex situation in Yemen. Since the Yemeni government is not the only party with a vested interest in the security of the country, but in fact shares this with other regional players, not to mention the US, NATO, and others keen to see an end to piracy and the securing of international maritime channels, this is now both a Yemeni and an international ambition. All parties benefit from bringing stability to the country and depriving al-Qaeda of a safe haven in Abyan and other areas it is seeking to dominate.

The geostrategic importance of Yemen's location, and the chance this poses for an al-Qaeda stronghold there, are high risk, and both call for a method of dealing with the problem in a manner that addresses the demographic, geographic, and social reasons that create fertile ground for al-Qaeda. Therefore, donors will have an important role to play in defining a concept for counter-terrorism based on the socio-economic aspect; this will result in the Yemeni government's grudgingly surrendering to the donors' instructions.


*   Takfiri is to accuse others of apostasy or of being an infidel, and, therefore, liable to be killed.

[1]    See Abdul Ilah Haidar Shaye, "The trajectory of al-Qaeda in Yemen," Maarib Press, http://marebpress.net/articles.php?id=5804.

[2] Carnegie Middle East Center: "The Political Challenge Posed by the Southern Movement in Yemen" (Arabic), http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=40652.

[3] Arabic audio recording available from Maarib Press, http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?sid=16554&lng=arabic.

[4] See Shaye, op.cit.

[5] al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia, A Ticking Bomb, A Report to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (January 21,2010),