Fanning the Flames – The Rise of AQAP


An assessment of what has contributed to the rise of Al Qaeda in Yemen.  The author points to the contributors of the swelling of their ranks which, among other factors, has included the cutting of the remittances from their richer neighbors after the first Gulf War and the security concerns (drone strikes).

By Richard Wallace, 23rd October 2013

Just a couple of months back, news channels were filled with coverage of the impending threat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP – the Gulf branch of Al-Qaeda) poses to domestic security in Yemen and international security more broadly. Yemen is rarely in the limelight, with much media attention focusing further north on the Middle East states of the Levant and Iran. When it does catch international attention, the media discourse on Yemen is typically highly securitized, to the extent that the country is increasingly cast as the next Afghanistan, the cradle of chaos, and the new haven and hotbed of international terrorism. Whether or not this is really the case, it is clear that Yemen does face serious challenges from AQAP’s local franchise and the danger is real. So just how did it come to this?

The Emergence of AQAP

AQAP emerged in early 2009 following a strategic merger between the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda and hardliner Islamist militants from neighboring Saudi Arabia, disgruntled with the perceived corruption of the al-Saud monarchic dynasty and its long time alliance with “the Great Satan”, the US. Indeed, the long border region between the two states is a fertile recruiting ground for AQAP militants.

Notably, the expulsion of many remittance-dependent Yemenis from Saudi Arabia (in the wake of former President Saleh’s expression of public support for Saddam Hussein) during the Gulf War resulted in an influx of disillusioned and newly impoverished Yemenis into an already volatile and economically vulnerable Yemen, adding fuel to a nascent fire of Islamist discontent. It is no coincidence that a large number of al Qaeda operatives in the broader region are Yemeni, and a disproportionate number of inmates (still) held in Guantanamo hail from the southern Arab state. It doesn’t take a seasoned political observer to fathom that youth unemployment mixed with existing socio-economic challenges such as poverty, hunger and illiteracy together constitute a combustible cocktail of resentment that can easily manifest itself through modes of violent political conduct infused with selective religious meaning.

The Oil Effect

Black Gold, that invaluable elixir that drives the engines of development, has proven particularly flammable. Yemenis, with their proud sense of ancient ancestry and national and cultural prestige dating back thousands of years look north to their oil rich and relatively young neighbor with some degree of resentment. Though not without oil reserves itself, Yemen has been politically eclipsed by the dawn of Saudi regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia has proven more capable at managing its natural resources though it benefits from the luxury of being able to spread this wealth over a significantly smaller population. This clear imbalance in oil wealth development has bred a sense of inferiority in the psyche of many young Yemenis and it’s not difficult to understand how they have came to ally themselves with radical jihadists from Saudi Arabia in their common vendetta against the al-Saud.

Oil development in Yemen itself has been relatively uneven. Under Saleh’s regime a narrow group of co-opted regime loyalists from selected tribes in the northern highland regions have thrived the most on lucrative revenues, deeply embedding themselves within a complex web of patronage at the expense of poor local communities in Marib, Shabwa and Hadramaut regions from where the black stuff is being extracted. The prospect of an oil boom was the very catalyst that fused Yemen’s two halves into one in 1990. The political logic driving this was the realization that oil extraction could be better co-ordinated and more fully exploited in a peaceful unified political environment, where potential geopolitical wrangling over who had which slice of the cake could be avoided entirely by wiping away the North-South divide.

Tragically however, the corruption and internal regional imbalances that resulted from the uneven distribution of oil wealth in the new Yemen led to new divisions and socio-economic discontent, through which AQAP has become a key conduit. Vociferous criticism of resource mismanagement and the active drawing of linkages between the everyday suffering of ordinary Yemenis and the injustices perpetrated by an oil-thirsty regime clique have featured prominently in al-Qaeda discourse. This frustration has often translated into violent action as evidenced by frequent al-Qaeda attacks on oil pipelines, notably in 2006-8. In the same period, AQAP launched assaults on foreign tourists, military personnel as well as the US embassy in Sana’a in order to destabilize the state.

Order through Chaos

By early 2010, AQAP had intensified attacks considerably, targeting government facilities and personnel in Abyan, Lahij, and alDali, prompting security experts in the country to concede the emergence of a power vacuum in these areas.  Significantly, AQAP occupied the southern town of Zinjibar in Abyan province in 2011, after armed forces suspiciously withdrew their checkpoints.

Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the seizure of the town of Zinjbar as well as a major jail break in 2006, in which current leader Nasir al-Wahayshi escaped, could not have been successfully carried out without the complicity of the authorities. It is perhaps no coincidence that this breakout occurred at a time when the US government began signalling to the Saleh regime that it should embrace political reforms and strengthen democratic institutions. This change in tone came in the aftermath of the regime’s successful campaign against Al Qaeda in 2005.

It has been widely mooted that former President Saleh actively encouraged militant activity to foster domestic instability and scaremonger the US into strengthening political-security ties with the existing regime and into providing extensive financial and military aid to it. Saleh shrewdly understood that the prevailing mentality of policy makers in the White House was guided by the motto “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” US officials knew full well that Saleh was no angel, but also that supporting him and underpinning regime stability was far easier to swallow down than a chaotic unpredictable alternative political reality in which AQAP could potentially operate unhindered in a broad political vacuum.

Thus was Yemen’s political development sidelined but at great cost. In pursuing foreign policy goals viewed through a narrow security lens, the US helped prop up a corrupt political apparatus, which served only to alienate the masses and breed further resentment against the state. This played right into AQAP’s hands, fanning the flames of discontent and fueling the insurgency further.

The response of the Saleh regime, the current Hadi administration and the US to the terrorist threat has proven to be highly controversial and extraordinarily divisive. Saleh sought to lump together the various dissident groups that have challenged state power, mainly AQAP, al-Hirak (Southern secessionists) and the Houthi insurgents in the North. In doing so, Saleh was able to portray these groups as a singular existential, terrorist threat and obtain tacit unconditional US support for military action against them, authorizing disproportionately repressive measures against protests from 2007-2011 that radicalized a new generation of young political activists and convinced many that violence was the only viable means of achieving their political goals. Not an insignificant number of the disillusioned joined AQAP’s ranks.

In the Crosshairs

Drone strikes have split opinion between those who see them as an effective means of decapitating AQAP, targeting the leadership whilst avoiding costly ground assaults, and those who decry the human cost of such strikes, which have in the past resulted in significant civilian casualties or just plainly hit the “wrong guy”. Such was the case with the 2011 drone strike that killed the popular deputy governor of Marib province, who was ironically negotiating with tribal groups in a peacekeeping mission to draw recruits away from AQAP in the region. Such senseless loss of innocent life has infuriated local conservative and impoverished tribal populations, particularly tribesmen bound by strict tribal codes that require them to seek revenge when one of their own is killed in an act of murder. The cycle of violence predictably reinforces itself. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that drone strikes have contributed to a swelling in AQAP’s ranks from hundreds into thousands over just a couple of years.

In a sense, the US counter-terrorism strategy is simply to cut off one of hydra’s heads, only to cause another two to grow in its place. This reactive security-centered strategy is not sufficient on its own. There needs to be genuine and deep reaching efforts to tackle the underlying socio-economic causes and political grievances of the populace in order to undercut AQAP’s support base. Failure to do so is akin to digging a hole in dry sand.

Richard Wallace is a London-based freelance writer on Middle East and Central Asian politics and security, with a particular interest in Yemen. He is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), holding a Masters in Middle East Politics. He can be reached by email at: He is also on Twitter @RichieJWallace.


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