Despite the loss of key figures and the emergence of ISIS in the region, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken advantage of Yemen's chaos to gain territory and support, writes Mubaraz Ahmed.
Operating out of Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is considered to be the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate in the world. In line with the global al-Qaeda strategy of attacking the far enemy, AQAP has been behind a number of attacks on Yemeni security forces, large-scale plots targeting the US, as well as claiming responsibility for the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
AQAP has been established in its current form in the region since 2009, but al-Qaeda has been operating in the country since the 1990s. But ISIS is also beginning to make its presence felt in Yemen. In addition to the presence of these Islamist militant groups, the current conflict between the Houthi movement and the regime of the internationally recognised President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, is further tearing the country apart. But despite the chaotic climate and emergence of a newer, more expansive jihadi outfit in ISIS, AQAP is quietly gaining ground.
Hearts and Minds
Whether in Iraq and Syria, the Sinai region, or Libya, ISIS and its affiliates have become synonymous with brutality. In Yemen the group has carried out a number of suicide bomb attacks on Shia mosques, including a series of attacks in March that killed over a hundred people. One might assume that ISIS' aggression in Yemen might prompt AQAP to attempt to match, if not exceed, the newcomer in stamping its authority and marking its territory. Yet AQAP has adopted a different approach, opting instead to win the battle of hearts and minds.
AQAP is trying to win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people.
In a statement released by AQAP in March 2015, the group positioned itself as the 'hero' in the face of the ISIS 'villain,' by reassuring Yemenis that al-Qaeda's global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had explicitly told his followers to "avoid targeting mosques and markets" and to "protect the lives of innocent Muslims." AQAP has chosen to use the brutality of ISIS as a marketing tool to present itself as a more moderate militant group. Condemnation of ISIS' wicked ways gives the impression that AQAP is in tune with the plight of the people in this war-torn country, understands their situation, and would not act in such a manner itself.
This is not a new strategy for AQAP. In 2011, the group formed of Ansar al-Sharia, a political organisation established to try and attract followers in areas of Yemen where AQAP had already taken territorial control without the baggage of the al-Qaeda 'brand'. Nevertheless, this politically minded front is still regarded as a terrorist organisation by the UN and the US.
Exploiting the Vacuum
The death of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP, in a drone strike in June 2015 was a major blow to the organisation. The timing of the death coincided with ISIS' increased activity in Yemen, which in other circumstances might have caused the group to lose ground as it recovers from the loss of such an experienced and battle-hardened leader. However, the escalation in tensions between Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners and the Houthi movement provided an opportunity for the group to recuperate.
The conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition has enabled AQAP to consolidate and address any internal issues without having to deal with government offensives against it. With the collapse of the central government and no unified front from Yemen's armed forces, which were previously geared primarily towards fighting against AQAP, there is nobody actively pursuing the group on the ground, despite the continuation of US drone strikes. Likewise, in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Gulf States the attention has shifted to tackling the Houthis, viewed as a proxy of Iran. With neither the Saudi or Yemeni forces currently interested in actively pursuing AQAP, the group has used the breathing space to continue with its territorial aspirations in Yemen.
There is nobody actively pursuing AQAP on the ground.
In April 2015, AQAP launched an attack on the eastern coastal city of Mukalla and eventually seized control of both the city and large stretches of Hadramawt province. During the battle, AQAP was able to seize an oil terminal, an infantry base, and a military airport without opposition, with Yemeni troops reportedly abandoning their posts to avoid the fight. This lack of appetite from the remnants of the Yemeni army may also make AQAP hungrier for further territorial gains.
The sectarian rhetoric of the conflict in Yemen has also helped AQAP to flourish. Saudi Arabia is the regional Sunni juggernaut, wielding an inordinate degree of religious influence over Sunnis in the Middle East and beyond, an influence that has helped it muster a coalition that includes no fewer than 10 other Sunni nations committing troops, aircraft, or both.
Iranian support for the Houthis, the exact nature of which is uncertain, could plausibly be an effort to simply further antagonise its age-old regional foe Saudi Arabia, as well as expand its influence in the Arabian Peninsula. However, much of the rhetoric, from both sides, frames it in terms of Iran supporting a Shia ally. The picture is complicated by the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, followed by the Houthis, being quite different from the Twelver school subscribed to by Iran. Indeed, it is often said that Zaydism is closer to Sunni Islam than to the Shia Twelver school. Nevertheless, the conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis has taken on a distinctly sectarian appearance: Sunnis versus Shias.
The sectarian rhetoric of the conflict in Yemen has helped AQAP to flourish.
AQAP has used this dichotomy to its advantage. In the west of the country where it controls large stretches of territory, AQAP has been presenting itself as a defence against the Shia influence in the form of the Houthis, furthering its efforts of trying to win the support of Yemen's Sunni population. Its sectarian theme also plays upon a traditional southern suspicion of the north, particularly deep since a north-south civil war in 1994. The fact that the north is majority Shia while the south is predominantly Sunni further enables a sectarian exploitation of the divide.
AQAP's renewed strength does not mean that it is about to march across Yemen unnoticed and unopposed. It does however suggest that conflict in Yemen will likely continue beyond the cessation of the battle between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. Under the shadow of the headline-dominating conflict, AQAP has seized the opportunity to rebuild and reassert its presence in the region while its longstanding enemies remain occupied with each other. Exploiting ISIS' indiscriminate brutality and the growing anti-Shia sentiments the conflict is engendering to present itself as the people's saviour gives the impression that AQAP is engaged in a long term strategy. A reenergised AQAP may also prompt ISIS to up the ante in its attacks in an effort to remain relevant. Whether AQAP targets Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or ISIS, the group's resurgence indicates that jihadi violence will only worsen as the conflict in Yemen becomes more entrenched.