As more information becomes available about the recent cargo bomb plot, it is becoming increasingly likely that al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were behind the attempt to detonate PETN explosives.
AQAP: The New Threat
ICSR’s Israeli partner organisation, the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (a part of the Inter-Disciplinary Centre in Herzeliya), recently released an extensive and authoritative document about the origins, capabilities and ideology of AQAP which we recommend to anyone seeking a firm grasp on the origins of the current situation. ‘Yemen: The Campaign against Global Jihad and the Houthis – Situation Report and Directions of Development’ can be downloaded here, and below are provided a number of the key extracts.
Organisational Development 2000-2010
Al-Qaeda’s first leader in Yemen was Abu Ali Al-Harethi. Following the 9/11 attacks, most of Al-Qaeda’s local leadership in Yemen, including Al-Harethi himself, were killed or arrested. Between 2002 and 2006, Al-Qaeda cells in Yemen were disbanded and most of their members were eliminated. The remaining infrastructure in Yemen was very active in recruiting and sending activists to the Jihad theatres in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia etc., and in spreading ideas, reports and propaganda materials relating to these fronts.
February 3rd 2006 was an important milestone for Al-Qaeda in Yemen and in general. Twenty three terrorist activists, including Al-Qaeda commanders, escaped from a secure prison in Yemen. All the local organization’s cells in Yemen were reunited under a new leadership who had sworn allegiance (whilst still in prison) to Abu Basir Nasir Abd Al-Karim Al-Wahishi, the organization’s Amir who was in his 30s. The new leadership built training camps and opened communications with all of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates around the world, including the main leadership in Afghanistan. New recruits swore their allegiance to the new organization in Yemen after it received the mandate of the general leadership from Ayman Al-Zawahiri in November 2008.
In 2008 Al-Qaeda in Yemen founded a media institute called “Al-Malahem” (The Battles), through which it publishes a periodical magazine called “Sada Al- Malahem” (Echo of the Battles),13 videos, audio tapes, official announcements and other publications. In June 2010 a new Jihadi magazine in English was posted on the Jihadi forums, called “Inspire”.
In January 2009 the merging of Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia with the organization’s branch in Yemen was announced, under the umbrella of “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, and the organization’s headquarters were set up in Yemen. Following the declaration, many young activists from Saudi Arabia came to strengthen the existing organizational infrastructure.
On January 11th 2010, the Al-Jazeera station aired a show on “The future of Al- Qaeda in Yemen”. On the show, Abd Al-Bari Taher, former chairman of the Journalists’ Union in Yemen, said that there are various estimates of the size of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. According to him, the organization numbers from hundreds to thousands of activists, including those who have infiltrated the security systems, the army and the state’s important sectors. In addition, the organization is active within the Yemeni tribes, which constitute a hothouse for Jihad entities.
Abdul Ela Haydar Sha’i, the Yemeni journalist who is close to the leadership of Al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, describes the two tiers of the Al-Qaeda organization in Yemen. The organization’s first tier is the cells which are subject to the main mechanism in Afghanistan, led by Osama bin Laden. These few cells pledged their allegiance (Bayaa)20 directly to bin Laden, and are dispersed across various regions throughout Yemen. The second tier is the ideological system, which has a hold on various aspects of Yemeni society. Sha’i notes that after the terrorist attacks in Madrid (March 2004), Al-Qaeda published an announcement
Yemen as an Ideological and Strategic Base for al-Qaeda
The importance attributed to Yemen has been rooted in Al-Qaeda’s ideology for over ten years. Even though some link it to Osama bin Laden’s Yemeni origins, the Salafi-Jihadi movement has a geopolitical ideology directly pertaining to Yemen. This is perhaps best embodied in the figurehead of Omar Abd Al-Hakim, also called “Abu Musab Al-Suri”, who is considered to be one of the most important ideologists of this faction, and is thought to be currently detained in Pakistan.
This significance was already seen in 1999 when Al-Suri wrote a 31-page essay titled “The responsibility of the people of Yemen towards their sanctities and resources”. The essay stated that the demographic makeup of Yemen, as well as the Yemeni stubbornness and poverty, alongside the topographical component(i.e. the many mountainous regions in Yemen), make Yemen a natural fortress for all the Jihad fighters in the Arabian Peninsula and the entire Middle East.26 In addition, Yemen has open borders which are spread over more than 4,000 km and a coastline of over 3,000 km. Furthermore, it commands one of the most important straits – the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait. Another component is the accessibility of weapons and ammunition due to the prevalent tribal tradition in the country. All of these, according to Al-Suri, are major factors in making Yemen a launch pad for the Jihad which is meant to purify the sanctities of Islam and bring back the natural resources robbed from the residents of the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslims. Therefore, Al-Suri calls for the establishment of an Islamic force comprised of people from Yemen, residents of the Arabian Peninsula and Muslims in general, that will take up position in Yemen as a departure point for attacking “enemies” all over the Arabian Peninsula.