Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The History and Significance of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

While most of us have heard a great deal about al-Qaeda, particularly since September 11, 2001, the group's offshoot, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is less well-known.  In this posting, I will provide a bit of background on AQAP that I've drawn from several sources, where AQAP came from and what it has done since it was formed in 2009.

Since Yemen is the current home base for AQAP, we need to put everything into context.  Over the years from the early 1990s to the late 2000s, Yemen was a significant producer of oil as shown on this map:

...and this graph:

Declining oil production in Yemen is related, in large part, to the nation's difficult security environment, an issue that could have a significant impact on the nation's ability to become a player in the world's liquified natural gas business.  In 2013, there were at least 10 attacks on Yemen's natural gas and oil pipeline system with some reports suggesting that there were as many as 24 attacks.  However, despite the nation's declining oil production, its geographic location is key to the transportation of a significant quantity of the world's oil since more than 3.4 million barrels of oil passed through the Bab el-Mandab located in the southwest corner of the nation at the outlet between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as shown on this map:

If this 2 mile-wide chokepoint were to close, this oil would have to be transported around the southern tip of Africa to reach European, North American and South American markets.

It is also important to recall that Yemen did not support the United States against Iraq in the First Gulf War but that Yemen's President Saleh was one of the first of the world's foreign leaders to pledge his support to the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
AQAP was founded in January 2009 through a merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaeda.  If we go back in time, we find that in the later 1980s, North Yemen's Saleh regime repatriated thousands of Yemenis who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, fighters who were regarded as heros.  These mujahideen were brought home to fight the U.S.S.R.-backed Marxist government of South Yemen in an attempt to reunify the two Yemens.  Among the returnees were other Arab fighters, namely Osama bin Laden who promoted Yemen as a key in the global Muslim war.  Over the years there have been three main jihadist groups in Yemen; Islamic Jihad in Yemen from 1990 to 1994, the Army of Aden Abyan from 1994 to 1998 and al-Qaeda in Yemen or AQY from 1998 to 2003.  Some of you may remember the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole while it was moored in the port of Aden; this attack was spearheaded by members of AQY.  

After the attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush II pressured President Ali Abdullah Saleh to take counter-terrorism moves against AQY.  The first U.S. drone strike in the region took place in 2002, killing AQY's leader Abu Ali-al-Harithi.  By 2003, it appeared that AQY had been defeated and was largely irrelevant.  In November 2005, the United States announced that, despite the co-operation of the Saleh regime in the fight against terrorism, Yemen would lose its $20 million in USAID assistance.  On top of that, the following day, the World Bank cut aid to Yemen from $420 million annually to $280 million.  In February 2006, 23 political prisoners "escaped" from a political security prison in the capital, Sana'a, among them, 39 year old Nasser al-Wuyashi who heads the AQAP today.  These "escapees" worked to bring al-Qaeda back to life.  In March 2007, al-Qaeda officially announced its re-emergence with al-Wuyashi as its commander.  In late 2008, a crackdown by the Saudi government led the membership of the local al-Qaeda franchise to flee to Yemen and unite with the Yemeni al-Qaeda, forming what we now know as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP.  

Here is a list of some of their key "accomplishments" since the group was resurrected:

In January 2008, it targeted Belgian tourists with suicide bombs.

In April 2008, it bombed a Japanese oil tanker.

In September 2008, it launched an assault on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a.

In March 2009 it targeted South Korean tourists with suicide bombs.

In August 2009, it attempted to assassinate Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, using a 23-year old suicide bomber with a bomb concealed in his rectum.

On December 25, 2009, there was an attempted attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253 flying from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan. (i.e the Underwear Bomber)

In April 2010, AQAP was also responsible for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the British Ambassador.

In October 2010, there were two attempts to down Chicago-bound aircraft with bombs disguised as printer cartridges.  As well, AQAP failed in their attempt to target a British Embassy vehicle with a rocket  

In May 2012, a suicide bomber killed 90 Yemeni soldiers and injured more than 220 people in total at a rehearsal for a military parade in Sana'a.

Land mines laid by AQAP during 2012 in parts of Yemen have killed 72 residents in the towns of Zinjibar and Jaar.

According to the U.S. State Department, AQAP had an estimated one thousand members in 2013.  This shows fairly dramatic growth since 2009 when there were an estimated 200 to 300 members.

It is also believed that Saleh allowed 70 al-Qaeda prisoners to go free from a political security prison in Sana'a in 2011, again in an attempt to bolster support from the Americans.  

Since December 2009, the Obama Administration has carried out attacks against AQAP in Yemen, primarily using drones but also implementing the use of covert operations.  It is estimated that there were 13 to 15 drone strikes in Yemen during 2014 accompanied by one additional "other operation" which killed a reported 82 to 118 people. 

To al-Qaeda, the more chaotic Yemen becomes, the better it is for al-Qaeda.  Many experts feel that AQAP is the most virulent franchise of the al-Qaeda brand and the recent actions of AQAP in France would suggest that they are not far from wrong.

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