Al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has thrived in Yemen for years. The United States calls AQAP the most active and dangerous group plotting against America, as reaffirmed by State Department Spokeswoman Jan Psaki. “The fact that they continue to pose a serious threat to the United States and its interests, we consider this to be one of the foremost national security challenges we face,” she remarked in August 2013.
Al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula leader Abdulaziz Al-Muqrin issued calls for the Saudi royal family to be overthrown. Conquering Saudi Arabia would be the first step towards establishing a Caliphate that would liberate the third holy place [Jerusalem] and unite all the Muslims of the world. The nightmare scenario for the West in one in which Saudi oil production (10% of world output) is taken out by terrorist attacks or by regime change. The Saudi ruling family is stuck between two contradictory policies: appeasement of puritanical Islam and alliance with America.
Until 2003, the Saudi government played down evidence that Islamic radicals were posing a threat to security. That changed after a series of deadly attacks in early 2003. The six million expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia are vital to the smooth functioning of the world economy. They run the country's oil industry and other sectors.
Prior to the May 2003, Al Qaeda bombings, there were several incidents in Riyadh in which explosive devices were placed under vehicles driven by Westerners. These attacks are not believed to have been conducted by an organized terrorist group, but instead by an individual or small group of individuals targeting Westerners. In two incidents in 2002, the devices detonated killing British and German national drivers. In a third case, also in 2002, a device was placed under a car driven by a private American citizen. This device failed to explode.
On 12 May 2003, Al Qaeda conducted a major terrorist attack in Riyadh, simultaneously detonating three large vehicle bombs inside three western housing compounds. Nine private American citizens were killed. Fourteen American citizens were among the hundreds of others who were wounded. Following the bombings, Saudi security forces made a number of arrests of Al Qaeda members and supporters throughout the Kingdom. While these arrests made it more difficult for Al Qaeda to conduct large-scale attacks in the Kingdom, the organization still maintained a presence in the Kingdom and retained the ability to conduct further attacks.
The May 2003 suicide bombings in Riyadh led to the campaign of the government to suppress the Islamist radical opposition. By November 2003 Saudi Foreign Affairs Advisor Adel al-Jubeir said more than 600 suspects had been arrested during the past several months, and dozens of terrorist cells had been destroyed.
A truck-bomb attack on the Al-Muhayya residential compound in Riyadh on 08 November 2003 killed 17 people (among them five children). The attack demonstrated that foreigners of Arab origin, who comprise much of the managerial classes, are more vulnerable than American military installations. Abdulaziz al-Muqrin is believed to have organized the attack. Observers did not rule out the possibility the terrorists targeted the mostly-Arab housing compound by mistake, assuming it was inhabited by Westerners. Several years earlier, a US company had housed its American and European employees there. The attack one of the few predicted by the American intelligence in advance. Washington had reported that there was "an immediate terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia" and that "the terrorists planning the attacks are moving into the operational phase." Saudi and US cooperation on intelligence provided indications of an imminent attack, but not a specific location.
Khaled Ali Ali Haj, al Qaeda's chief of operations in the Arabian peninsula, had been wanted by Saudi authorities since May 2003, when his name was published days before that month's triple suicide bombings in Riyadh. Haj, a Yemeni, was once a bodyguard of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and he had been on "missions" in Afghanistan, Europe and southeast Asia. Analysts described him as al Qaeda's chief of operations in the Arabian peninsula.
On 16 March 2004 Khaled Ali Ali Haj and suspected militant Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz bin Mohammad al-Muzainy were killed after authorities said they were stopped by security forces and opened fire. Khaled Ali Ali Haj was heading for an undisclosed mission when he was ambushed and killed by security forces in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Abdulaziz al-Muqrin [Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin] took over the Saudi operation after the previous leader was killed in a shootout with police in March 2004. Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin, defendant number one in the recently announced list of the 26 most wanted persons. Believed to be in his mid-30s, his nom de guerre is "Abu-Hajar." He trained with the Al-Qa'ida organization in Afghanistan during the period 1990-1994. Al-Muqrin transferred from Afghanistan to Algeria to fight on the side the Islamic Liberation Front (FIS) in the mid-1990s. He smuggled weapons from Spain to Algeria via Morocco. He then went to Bosnia-Herzegovina, working initially as a member of a training staff in a military camp. He was arrested and imprisoned in Somalia until he was deported to Saudi Arabia where he was imprisoned in 1999. A Saudi religious court sentenced him to four years in prison. He learned the Koran by heart, which prompted the Interior Ministry to commute his prison sentence by half. He was released from prison in 2001, and left for Yemen and arrived in Afghanistan. According to his own account, he took part in the last of the fighting against US forces when they invaded in 2001. Then he returned to Saudi Arabia. An adviser to Saudi Arabia's ambassador to London called al-Muqrin the "toughest" in a series of perhaps a half-dozen leaders who had headed the Saudi network. Abdulaziz al-Muqrin was editor of al-Battar magazine, the al-Qaida training publication. The al-Battar sword -- the "sword of the prophets -- was taken by the prophet Muhammad as booty from the Banu Qaynaqa. The magazine's name commemorates "Al-Battar" , the alias of Sheikh Yousef Al-Ayyiri. This former an Al-Qa'ida leader in Saudi Arabia was Osama bin Laden's personal bodyguard. He was killed in 2003 in a clash with Saudi security forces.
On 14 April 2004, due to security concerns, the Department of State ordered the departure of family members and non-emergency employees of the US Embassy and Consulates in Saudi Arabia.
On 21 April 2004 a car bombing at the Directorate of Traffic in downtown Riyadh killed five people and wounded nearly 150 others.
On 28 April 2004 a statement attributed to an al-Qaida leader who is Saudi Arabia's most wanted man yesterday warned that the terrorist group intended to launch "fierce" attacks against Jews, Americans and western interests in the Middle East. The statement by Abdulaziz al-Muqrin was broadcast over the internet. He denied that al-Qaida was behind a suicide bombing in Riyadh that killed five, but applauded it as a punishment for the Saudi regime. The statement said: "The Jews, the Americans and crusaders in general will remain the targets of our coming attacks and this year, God willing, will be fiercer and harsher for them. And the apostate Saudi government will be incapable of protecting their interests or providing security for them."
The May 2004 terrorist attacks used new tactics in Al-Khobar and Yanbu attacks to directly target vital economic and government interests. These actions combined three tactical aims: undermining the power of the Saudi royal, scaring off Western workers, and attacking the world economy by driving up oil prices.
On 01 May 2004 militants in the Red Sea city of Yanbu shot and killed five Western energy workers. On May 1 beginning at about 0645 AM, a group of Arab males with automatic weapons and handguns attacked the offices of ABB Lummus Global, a contractor for Exxon/Mobil (Yanpet) in Yanbu. There were reports of an incident at the Yanbu International School at about 0745 AM with no damage reported. Staff and children had already been advised not to report to school that morning. There was also shooting reported near the Holiday Inn Hotel. The gunmen killed five Westerners, including two Americans, two Britons, and an Australian. All five worked for the energy company ABB-Lummus in the northwestern Saudi city of Yanbu. Three other company employees were wounded in the shooting. The Saudi forces were caught off guard by the attack at the Yanbu petrochemical complex. Saudi security forces reported that three of the terrorists were killed and a fourth wounded and taken into custody. Several Saudi security forces were killed and wounded in their fight with the terrorists. Afterwards, the US Government warned US citizens to defer travel to Saudi Arabia and said that private American citizens currently in Saudi Arabia are strongly urged to depart. The Embassy kept in very close touch with American citizens who are in Saudi Arabia.
On the morning of May 29, 2004, terrorist attacks were carried out against at least three Western targets in the city of Al Khobar. Foreign Nationals, including Westerners, and Saudi citizens were killed in the attacks. Terrorists held around 50 people hostage in the offices and residences of foreign oil company employees in Al-Khobar. The attack began at 7.30 in the morning, when four attackers in army uniform attacked the APICORP compound, site of the headquarters of the Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation as well as its housing facilities. The perpetrators seemed to spare Muslims but not without advising them towards their ill-guided version of piety. The hostage crisis, which lasted for almost 25 hours, came to an end on 30 May 2004 when Saudi commandos rescued fifty people. Twenty-two people were killed by the terrorists which included eight Indians. A website claiming to speak for Al-Qaeda declared that the Indians were killed in retaliation for the 'murder of our Muslim brothers in Kashmir.' The operation in Al Khobar succeeded in releasing many of the hostages, and the large number killed might have been hard to prevent, but the escape of three of the four terrorists was a substantial blow.
The Khobar storming increased the prospects of political instability in Saudi Arabia. Following the attack the US State Department urged the estimated 35,000 Americans living in the kingdom to leave the country.
On 02 June 2004 Saudi Arabia announced it was folding all of its private charities that send money overseas into a single commission in an effort to crack down on funding for terrorists. The government is setting up a new Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad to better control the flow of money overseas.
On 07 June 2004 an alleged al-Qaida statement, which appeared on an Islamic website Monday, warned of new attacks against "all compounds, bases and means of transportation," including airlines from the United States and other Western countries, which the statement said would be a direct target of coming operations. The statement asked Muslims in Saudi Arabia to stay away from Americans and other Westerners to avoid becoming victims of the promised attacks. "All compounds, bases and means of transportation, especially Western and American airline companies, will be a direct target for our coming operations in the near future." The message warned "security forces and guards of Crusader compounds and American bases" and "those who carry weapons on behalf of the crusaders and the covert agents of the Saudi government.... We urge them to repent and separate themselves from the heretics and their habits and pursuit of wealth and their speech and their ways,"
Al-Qaida terrorists in Saudi Arabia killed American hostage Paul Johnson on 18 June 2004. The 49-year old American, a specialist on Apache attack helicopters who worked for Lockheed Martin in Saudi Arabia, was kidnapped on 12 June 2004. Members of the terrorist group al-Qaida released a videotape of Mr. Johnson 16 June, saying they would kill him in 72-hours unless the Saudi government releases all militants in its prisons. In the video, Johnson is blindfolded and wearing an orange shirt. Later, a hooded militant dressed in black with a Kalashnikov assault rifle says that Johnson will be killed unless all militants held in Saudi Arabia are released within 72 hours. The deadline was set to expire Friday. Three photographs were shown on an Islamic Internet site depicting the beheading. "The infidel got his fair treatment," declared a statement posted in Arabic that accompanied the photographs. "Let him taste something from what Muslims tasted who were long reached by Apache helicopter fire and missiles." The death of Mr. Johnson followed days of intensive search throughout the capital Riyadh for the kidnappers. Helicopters hovered over the skyline of Saudi capital late Friday as thousands of police and security officers conducted door-to-door searches. There were police checkpoints at dozens of intersections throughout the city. Fire department vehicles joined the search. Earlier in the day, in a tearful plea for his release, Mr. Johnson's wife, Noom Johnson, appeared on the Arabic language al Arabiya television station asking for help from the Saudi government. The decapitated body of Paul Johnson was found north of the Saudi capital Friday after pictures of his severed head and body were flashed on several Islamic web sites.
Saudi security forces stormed a central Riyadh neighborhood in search of the terrorists who beheaded American hostage Paul Johnson. The security forces said the alleged Al Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin was killed during the assault.
On 06 December 2004 gunmen blasted their way into the US consulate in Jeddah, killing at least five non-American employees. Four members of the Saudi national guard who responded to the attack were also killed, as were three of the militants. According to a senior Saudi official in the capital Riyadh, no Americans were taken hostage in the attack against the US consulate in Jeddah. But the official said third-country nationals were briefly taken hostage before the consulate was secured. The official said four members of the Saudi security forces were killed, and several others were wounded during a gun battle that erupted after five attackers made their way inside the consulate compound. The attackers struck the consulate with explosive devices at two compound gates. Shortly afterward, the attackers opened fire with automatic weapons. A senior Saudi government official said it appeared the attackers used hand grenades in, what he called, a diversionary tactic, while others entered the compound firing their weapons.
While Bin Ladin’s death represents an important victory in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, it does not mean a reduced terrorism threat. The threat from al Qaeda affiliates, like AQAP and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has drastically changed and represents the most significant difference in the terrorist threat environment since 9/11. AQAP, which has attempted two homeland attacks within the past 2 years, now poses as serious a threat to the homeland as core al Qaeda. AQAP has proven itself an innovative and sophisticated enemy capable of striking beyond the Arabian Peninsula. While the tactics core al Qaeda developed and refined continue to threaten the United States, the inventive tactics created by AQAP pose an additional dangerous threat.
Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) on January 19, 2010. In January 2009, the leader of al-Qa’ida in Yemen (AQY), Nasir al-Wahishi, publicly announced that Yemeni and Saudi al-Qa’ida (AQ) operatives were working together under the banner of AQAP. This announcement signaled the rebirth of an AQ franchise that previously carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia. AQAP’s self-stated goals include establishing a caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Middle East, as well as implementing Sharia law.
AQAP has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist acts against both internal and foreign targets since its inception in January 2009. Attempted attacks against foreign targets include a March 2009 suicide bombing against South Korean tourists in Yemen, the August 2009 attempt to assassinate Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, and the December 25, 2009 attempted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan.
With the Christmas Day 2009 attempt by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate an IED onboard Northwest Flight 253, AQAP became the first al Qaeda affiliate to attempt an attack on the homeland. With this attack, AQAP broke from al Qaeda’s typical modus operandi in several ways. Abdulmutallab was a single operative traveling alone. Rather than constructing his device in the target country, he carried an IED on his person all the way from the flight he first boarded in Africa to the airspace over Detroit, and he evaded detection systems in various airports. Unlike Zazi, Abdulmutallab was not based in the United States, providing fewer chances for the FBI to look for clues of possible terrorist associations.
After this attempted attack, AQAP revealed its capacity to adapt and innovate by following with the October 2010 package-bomb plot. With this plot, AQAP obviated the need for a human operative by sending sophisticated IEDs concealed in printer cartridges inside packages aboard airfreight airlines. This tactic eliminated the potential for human error in the operation or detonation of the device. AQAP claims the total operation cost was only $4,200, a vastly smaller figure than the estimated $400,000 to $500,000 spent by al Qaeda to plan 9/11. In this “death by 1,000 cuts” approach, AQAP moved the West to spend many times that to reexamine and strengthen its security procedures. From AQAP’s perspective, this failed attempt was a success—not in producing mass casualties, but in achieving a high economic cost.
In addition to conducting its own attacks, AQAP also sought to radicalize and inspire others to conduct attacks. In July 2010, AQAP published the first edition of its English-language online magazine, Inspire, a glossy, sophisticated publication geared to a Western audience. In the five published editions of Inspire, AQAP has provided religious justification and technical guidance, including information on manufacturing explosives and training with an AK-47, to encourage HVEs to stage independent attacks.
AQAP was responsible for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the British Ambassador in April 2010, and a failed attempt to target a British embassy vehicle with a rocket in October of that year. Also in October 2010, AQAP claimed responsibility for a foiled plot to send explosive-laden packages to the United States via cargo plane. The parcels were intercepted in the UK and in the United Arab Emirates.
In all facets of its operations, AQAP benefited from the expertise and insights provided by its American members to target an English-speaking audience. Anwar al-Aulaqi — a former U.S.-based imam and later a leader of AQAP — was a charismatic figure with many English-language sermons available online. Over a few years, Aulaqi had gone from a radicalizer to an individual who now plays an increasingly operational role in AQAP. He has recruited individuals to join the group, facilitated training at camps in Yemen, and prepared Abdulmutallab for his attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253. Samir Khan, an American jihadist blogger who traveled to Yemen in October 2009, helps oversee AQAP’s production of Inspire magazine. Together, Aulaqi and Khan drew on their understanding of the United States to craft a radicalizing message tailored to American Muslims.
Despite the death in September 2011 of AQAP transnational operations chief and US person Anwar al-Aulaqi, the US judged AQAP remained the node most likely to attempt transnational attacks. His death probably reduced, at least temporarily, AQAP's ability to plan transnational attacks, but many of those responsible for implementing plots, including bombmakers, financiers, and facilitators, remain and could advance plots.
AQAP took control of Zinjbar and other areas in Abyan, Lahj, and Shabwah governorates in 2011 and held these locations for approximately one year until a government offensive drove them out in June. This fighting displaced over 100,000 persons. Mines, unexploded ordnance, and IEDs planted by AQAP, which deliberately targeted the civilian population, slowed, or prevented their return to their homes. At the end of the year, the UNHCR had registered more than 85,000 IDPs who returned to their homes.
The security situation in Yemen improved in some respects in 2012, but remains unstable. Specifically, the new administration led by President Hadi has been more aggressive in countering al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) than the previous administration. In 2012, the Yemeni government carried out a two-month offensive to uproot AQAP from portions of Abyan Governorate, and Yemeni forces eventually regained control over the towns of Zinjibar and Jaar. However, approximately 3,000 land mines, planted by AQAP militants before they fled, killed 72 residents in the aftermath of AQAP’s departure. Other AQAP attacks in 2012 targeted the Yemeni military, including a February 2012 suicide car bombing that killed 26 Yemeni soldiers in Hadramawt Governorate. Of particular note, in June 2012, a Yemeni military offensive conducted in conjunction with tribal militias in southern Yemen removed AQAP from regions where it had seized control during the civil unrest in 2011.
The FTO designation for AQAP was amended on October 4, 2012, to include the alias Ansar al-Shari’a (AAS). AAS represents a rebranding effort designed to attract potential followers in areas under AQAP’s control. AQAP, operating under the alias AAS, carried out a May 2012 suicide bombing in Sanaa that killed 96 people. AQAP/AAS claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted Yemeni soldiers rehearsing for a parade to celebrate Yemen’s National Day, and said the bombing was intended to target the Yemeni military brass. Also in May 2012, press reported that AQAP allegedly plotted to detonate a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airliner using an improvised explosive device. Though there was no imminent threat to U.S. jetliners, the device, which was acquired from another government, was similar to devices that AQAP had previously used in attempted terrorist attacks.
In the southern governorates of Abyan and Aden, terrorist activity by AQAP and its affiliate Ansar al Sharia caused a large number of deaths and injuries during 2012. Government forces, supported by local tribal militias, carried out an offensive in the spring to drive AQAP militias from strongholds in Abyan. Hundreds of combatants on both sides died during the fighting, and reports indicated that innocent bystanders also were killed. Tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) were forced from Abyan to Lahj and Aden for safety and shelter. AQAP-controlled areas in Abyan Governorate were booby-trapped with mines and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and dozens of IDPs who returned to their homes after government forces regained control of former AQAP areas were killed when they entered these booby-trapped homes or family areas.
However, AQAP continued to conduct attacks against the Yemeni government and remains a threat to the United States, and according to a senior Yemeni MOD official, AQAP’s decision to change tactics from seizing and holding territory to conducting targeted assassinations of Yemeni government officials, including in Sana’a, constitutes a major security challenge. Yemen’s transitional period has weakened the central state’s security apparatus to a degree that is likely to make the battle for local support, rather than further degradation of state capacity, AQAP’s priority.
Although it is difficult to assess the number of AQAP’s members, as of 2012 the group was estimated to have close to one thousand members. AQAP’s funding primarily came from robberies and kidnap for ransom operations and to a lesser degree from donations from like-minded supporters.
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