Al Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]
Ansar al-Shari’a (AAS)
Washington considers AQAP to be the worldwide jihadist network's most dangerous branch. The Sunni extremist group has thrived in the chaos of years of civil war between Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Shiite rebels who control the capital. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula 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-Qa’ida in Yemen (AQY) announced its merger with al-Qa’ida (AQ) elements in Saudi Arabia in January 2009, creating al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This strategy of consolidation received significant publicity and demonstrated AQ’s reinvigorated recruitment efforts and commitment to expand operations throughout the Peninsula. However, the creation of AQAP coincided with fewer attacks within Yemen. This was due in part to Yemeni security forces’ disruptions of the group, but also may have reflected the desire of AQAP’s leadership to reduce its attacks within Yemen and use the country – and particularly those regions that were largely outside government control -- as a safe haven for planning future attacks.
AQAP, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has gained ground in eastern Yemen and has been left virtually unchecked to recruit and train. AQAP was responsible for the Paris attacks in 2016 and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was responsible for overtaking a prison in March 2016 and releasing several hundreds of prisoners including a senior operative of al-Qaeda. AQAP's leader is a follower of bin Laden and like bin Laden also seeks to strike Western targets, including in the United States.
AQAP has demonstrated the capability and intent to target western aviation interests. The group publicly claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in December 2009, the October 2010 attempted bombing of two U.S. cargo aircraft using explosives concealed in printer cartridges shipped from Yemen, and is suspected to have been behind a foiled aviation bomb plot in May 2012.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula rebranding itself to try to lose the negative "baggage" associated with the larger terror organization's identity, according to a senior Arab diplomat who says the Yemeni-based group is trying to attract more foreign fighters to its cause. AQAP was increasingly going by the name "Ansar al Sharia," which means Army of Islamic Law.
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 was one in which Saudi oil production (10% of world output) was taken out by terrorist attacks or by regime change. The Saudi ruling family was stuck between two contradictory policies: appeasement of puritanical Islam and alliance with America. In 2004 Saudi security forces killed several top leaders of the al-Qa'ida organization in Saudi Arabia, including Khalid Ali al-Hajj and Abdulaziz al-Muqrin.
The destabilizing actions of the Houthis and their allies created conditions that are beneficial to AQAP. The deterioration of the political situation in Yemen provided new openings for AQAP to regain the ground that was lost, owing to the efforts of the U.S. and Yemeni Governments to combat it.
The record of US activities in Yemen from 2011 to 2016 was positive, in terms of the effectiveness of unilateral US actions against AQAP, as well as the cooperation and the ability of the United States to partner effectively with counterparts inside of Yemen. And as a result of what the was able to accomplish, there were a number of positive developments in terms of taking some of the leadership elements out of AQAP off the table and also forcing AQAP to change its strategy.
When the political crisis came in Yemen in 2011, AQAP was able to take advantage of that and increase its territorial control to the extent that they were actually declaring areas of the country to be an Islamic caliphate, not unlike that with ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
And because of US cooperation with Yemeni security forces, it was possible to inflict a significant loss of life for AQAP, which by 2016 was believed by the US to number about a thousand combatants. As a result, they changed their tactics. They went back to being a more traditional terrorist organization. They were able to attack locations inside of Sana'a and elsewhere. But the US achieved progress in pressuring them and keeping them on the defensive as opposed to giving them lots of time. In 2009 and 2010, AQAP mounted fairly serious efforts to attack the United States - the underwear bomber and then also the cassette tape effort. After 2010, they were not able to do that, despite the fact that their intent was still as clear and as strong as it was before.
While AQAP was by no means defeated, and continued to be a major threat to security in the United States, as well as in Yemen and elsewhere around the world, nevertheless, the US had achieved some success in the fight against AQAP.
Because of the change in the situation inside of Yemen, by 2016 the US was losing some of the gains that were made during that period of 2012 to 2014.
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