In the spring of 2011, militants affiliated with al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized control of towns in Yemen’s southern Abyan Province.[1] This land grab occurred at the same time that Sana`a-based political forces were mired in a power struggle between the supporters of then-President Ali Abdullah Salih and a number of regime defectors ignited by Arab Spring-inspired protests. With the Yemeni armed forces split, and military leaders distracted by events in the capital, the AQAP-affiliated fighters were able to cement their control of Abyan, taking on the role of governance and meting out their strict interpretation of Shari`a (Islamic law) as they declared a succession of Islamic emirates in the name of Ansar al-Shari`a (The Supporters of Islamic Law). Both locals and Yemeni government officials largely spoke of the two as interchangeable from the start, while statements from AQAP figures appeared to cast Ansar al-Shari`a as an alias for their group.[2]

The militants would not be dislodged from their strongholds in the province until more than a year later in June 2012 after a sustained offensive by Yemeni troops and local tribal fighters backed by U.S. airstrikes.[3] At the time, it was hailed as a crucial victory, as Yemeni government officials trumpeted the “liberation” of Abyan from Ansar al-Shari`a fighters.[4] Yet the year that has followed has made such declarations appear premature. Since Ansar al-Shari`a abandoned control of its former strongholds in western Abyan, they have expanded their presence across the country, showing few tangible signs of struggling to find areas of relative refuge, even amidst continuing U.S. airstrikes carried out by drone aircraft.[5]

Outside of Yemen, discussions of AQAP often tend to focus on a handful of the group’s most prominent members. This attention is far from unwarranted. AQAP’s current leadership has proven uniquely skilled, demonstrating a great degree of coherence.[6] Yet it contrasts with the relative lack of attention such figures receive in Yemen itself, where focus instead falls on the various parts of the country where the group has been able to find refuge.

This article reexamines AQAP’s “defeat” in Abyan Province and identifies some of the factors behind the group’s resilience in Yemen. It finds that AQAP’s unified leadership and ideology notwithstanding, it must deal with differing regional dynamics as it aims to find and solidify areas to operate in Yemen. The importance of the latter certainly does not negate that of the former. Indeed, the developments of the past year would appear to demonstrate that AQAP’s strength lies in its adaptability, which is ultimately fueled by its leadership’s knowledge of the differing dynamics of areas across the country and their ability to apply it to their larger strategy.

The Case of Abyan Province
The example of Abyan Province is particularly instructive. What was cast at the time as a “defeat” of Ansar al-Shari`a fighters appears in hindsight as a “strategic retreat,” in consonance with the claims of the group itself.[7] The military onslaught the group faced in the spring of 2012 may have spurred them to forsake control of former strongholds, but rather than abandoning the province it appears that they instead shifted their presence.

As reports noted at the time, the bulk of fighters were able to flee the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar with relative ease, in most cases with their weapons, while many of those native to the towns were able to slip back into normal society.[8] Security officials acknowledge that AQAP and Ansar al-Shari`a cells remain even in towns and villages that are ostensibly in the hands of the government or local anti-AQAP tribal militias.[9] These fighters maintain a significant presence near the towns of Jaar and Mudiyya, which were both focal points of last year’s military push, even if the bulk of fighters in the province have taken to higher ground.[10] The center of gravity has shifted to the mountains of al-Maraqisha, and the AQAP stronghold of al-Mahfad in the province’s east, which grant the fighters comparative safety in its rugged terrain.[11] They have continued to stage intermittent attacks on tribal and military targets in population centers in the province’s west,[12] while giving up the “liability” of having to defend the easily penetrable flat farmlands surrounding Jaar and its environs.[13]

In consort with its activities outside the province, AQAP’s moves since Ansar al-Shari`a’s defeat in Abyan suggest a shift away from any aims to hold land. Instead, AQAP appears to have reverted to its pre-2011 strategy, which privileged operations space over any aspiration of governance.[14]

In that sense, the fruits of last spring’s offensive bear little resemblance to a conclusive defeat for AQAP as a whole. Militants have retained longstanding areas of relative refuge, while expanding their presence to new parts of the country, most notably the central province of Bayda and the eastern province of Hadramawt.[15] Ongoing U.S. airstrikes have eliminated a handful of AQAP’s top leaders—most notably its former deputy, Said al-Shihri, and its top cleric, Adil al-Abab—but Yemeni security officials question claims that airstrikes have decisively hampered the group’s activities.[16] These officials instead ground AQAP’s resilience in its ability to capitalize on changing dynamics in different parts of the country,  seeking out havens in isolated areas where government control is nearly absent and resentment of Sana`a is rife, largely avoiding confrontations with powerful tribes and manipulating local discord to strengthen its position.

This comes in spite of claims that Yemen’s current president, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, has proved a far more dedicated counterterrorism partner than his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Salih, since taking office in February 2012.[17] While U.S. officials largely described Salih as a crucial American ally, the former president’s critics and political opponents had long argued that he exploited the threat of al-Qa`ida for his own political benefit.[18] In contrast to Salih’s quiet granting of permission, Hadi has openly acknowledged—and backed—the U.S. policy of launching airstrikes at targets in Yemen.[19] Local analysts have largely corroborated U.S. and Yemeni government claims that Hadi’s time in office has seen increased commitment and improved bilateral cooperation in the battle against AQAP.[20]

Yet even those who note improvements since the transfer of power counter that the current counterterrorism strategy employed in the country remains critically flawed, arguing that an apparent focus on simply targeting militants has come at the expense of devoting the necessary attention and effort to combating the larger factors that have given AQAP room to grow. Analysts and regular Yemenis alike argue that the battle against AQAP must also tackle longstanding issues like underdevelopment, high levels of unemployment and widespread resentment of the central government in rural areas spurred by uneven access to basic services like electricity and healthcare.[21] They argue that current initiatives from international actors aimed at tackling such problems, most notably through the Friends of Yemen group, are insufficient.

Local Factors Determine AQAP’s Success
Local factors tend to govern both the absence and presence of AQAP militants. AQAP and the vociferously anti-American Huthi[22] rebels, who control the bulk of the provinces of Sa`da and al-Jawf, may share a common enemy in the Yemeni government, but their relationship is just as adversarial. Statements from AQAP have condemned the Zaydi Shi`a Huthis in starkly sectarian terms, taking responsibility for attacks on the group in both Sa`da and al-Jawf.[23] The Huthis openly cast AQAP as an “American creation” manipulated by political and military powers in Sana`a.[24] Regardless, local officials say the group’s strength currently functions as a bulwark against potential AQAP expansion in areas under their control.[25] While Sa`da and al-Jawf are strategically located along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, AQAP’s presence in both provinces remains light, largely concentrated in isolated villages where locals have adopted Saudi-influenced brands of Sunni Islam.[26] AQAP’s small numbers belie the significance such border areas hold for the group: the loss of key transit routes in the border province of al-Jawf would rob AQAP of its primary link to Saudi Arabia.[27]

To the south, in mountainous districts in the north of the province of Lahj, armed locals have largely been able to prevent AQAP fighters from gaining ground.[28] This area is a stronghold of hard line factions of Yemen’s secessionist Southern Movement,[29] or Hiraak. Similar to the Huthis, the Southern Movement blames AQAP’s strength on Sana`a-based elites, stating that the government’s incompetence and collusion with extremists effectively left them with no other option but to defend themselves against AQAP and Ansar al-Shari`a militants, which southern secessionists see as both a threat to their way of life and to their aims of gaining independence.[30] The mobilization of separatist-leaning tribesmen, largely spearheaded by Mohamed Ali Ahmed, a prominent Southern Movement figure, is also widely acknowledged to have played a key role in the battle against Ansar al-Shari`a in Abyan. [31]

Local analysts explain AQAP’s current actions in the context of a general strategy to seek out areas where government control is absent and local tribal leaders are apathetic or weak. The group’s expansion in the area of Qayfa and the town of Ra`da in the west of the central province of Bayda are a notable exception to the latter, coming as a result of support from a number of key members of the al-Dahab family—powerful and locally respected tribal elites.[32] Al-Qa`ida-affiliated fighters led by one member of the family, Tariq al-Dahab, took control of the town of Ra`da in early 2012 before agreeing to withdraw a week later after tribal mediation.[33] Yet the group maintains a strong presence in the al-Dahabs’ stronghold in al-Manaseh.[34] The allegiance of some members of the al-Dahab family has brought with it the allegiance of many local tribesmen—a result of their loyalty to AQAP-aligned, Manaseh-based members of the al-Dahab family, rather than an endorsement of AQAP itself.[35] Regardless, locals say that the loyalty of many area tribesmen has held up even in the face of a government military offensive earlier this year, stating that many tribesmen fought alongside AQAP-affiliated fighters, viewing the Yemeni military’s battle against the militants as an unwelcome violation of their sovereignty.[36]

The open cooperation of leading tribal figures in Bayda contrasts with the general state of affairs in most of the rest of the country. AQAP’s greatest asset in most areas where it maintains a presence is typically cast as local indifference: too weak to face the group on their own, locals will rarely confront it absent a reason to do so, whether in the form of incentives and support offered from the government or more prominent tribal leaders, or blowback from overly aggressive actions from AQAP affiliates themselves.[37] Locals in the central province of Marib have explained its longstanding AQAP presence by the absence of the central government’s control and militants’ ability—and willingness—to quietly blend in.[38]

A security official in Hadramawt explained the group’s recent expansion on similar issues, noting the lack of government presence in areas of the province that host AQAP activity and the passive response of locals who feel too weak to fight back.[39] Since the offensive in Abyan, analysts argue, the group appears to have focused on avoiding inflaming local sentiment. Militants in Hadramawt, for example, have directed offensive actions largely at security officials.[40] This has made it all the easier for AQAP to capitalize on resentment of U.S. airstrikes; by presenting themselves as a benign force to locals, the group is able to shift blame for violence to the Yemeni and U.S. governments, casting them as the belligerent parties.

Hailed as a victory at the time, in hindsight Ansar al-Shari`a’s abandonment of its former strongholds in Abyan seems to have been more of a temporary setback than a crippling defeat. AQAP has responded to its losses by shifting strategy, going so far as to expand its presence to new parts of Yemen in the year that has followed. While U.S. airstrikes have had some success in targeting the group’s key leaders, they have shown no signs of inflicting a debilitating blow.[41]

In accordance with its reputation, AQAP has shown a continued ability to adapt, one that appears to be fueled by knowledge of differing dynamics across the country. In context, events in Abyan ultimately constitute one chapter in a long and continuing narrative.

Andrew Michaels and Sakhr Ayyash are two journalists who have reported extensively from Yemen for international media outlets.

[1] The takeover of Zinjibar came as clashes between anti-government tribesmen and pro-Salih troops plunged much of Sana`a into urban warfare.

[2] On the eve of its emergence in April 2011, Shaykh Adil al-Abab, AQAP’s fourth-ranking figure, described Ansar al-Shari`a as “the name…we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work.” Ansar al-Shari`a’s leaders universally delivered oaths of allegiance to AQAP amir Nasir al-Wahayshi. Yet even if a number of the details of the relationship between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari`a continue to fuel discussion, the debate has largely focused on whether the latter constitutes a formal arm of the former or a simple rebranding. Even analysts who have focused on apparent differences in the shape of the two groups’ operations have still cast Ansar al-Shari`a as a subordinate organization inextricably tied to AQAP. For its part, the U.S. government directly designated Ansar al-Shari`a an alias for AQAP in October 2012. For more details, see Christopher Swift, “Arc of Convergence: Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP and the Struggle for Yemen,” CTC Sentinel 5:6 (2012).

[3] “Yemen Retakes Ground in Push on Islamist Rebels,” Reuters, June 11, 2013.

[4] Adam Baron, “Yemen’s Defense Minister Visits Zinjibar, Jaar – Freed from al Qaida-linked Militants’ Control,” McClatchy Newspapers, June 13, 2012.

[5] The end of 2011 marked the start of a sharp uptick in U.S. military actions in Yemen. The New America Foundation recorded 79 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen during the Obama administration.

[6] See also Gabriel Koehler-Derrick ed., A False Foundation: AQAP, Tribes, and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2011).

[7] A statement attributed to Ansar al-Shari`a released after the group’s withdrawal explicitly stated that they “did not retreat from weakness, but rather to turn the pages of the enemy.” See “Al-Qaeda and the Political Transition Process in Yemen,” al-Jazira Center for Studies, August 29, 2012; Baron, “Yemen’s Defense Minister Visits Zinjibar, Jaar – Freed from al Qaida-linked Militants’ Control.”

[8] Kelly McEvers, “Yemen Works to Reclaim Al Qaeda’s Territory,” National Public Radio, June 13, 2012

[9] Personal interview, local Yemeni security official, August 2013. See also Andrew Hammond, “Al Qaeda Goes Underground in US-driven Crackdown,” Reuters, October 23, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Personal interviews, two local figures familiar with AQAP operations in the region, August 2013; “US Drone Kills Six Al Qaeda Militants, Says Yemeni Military Source,” Agence France-Presse, July 28, 2013.

[12] “AQAP Attacks Popular Committees in Lawdar,” Sada Aden, August 12, 2013; “8 Killed in U.S. Drone Strike in Southern Yemen,” Xinhua, June 1, 2013; “Two Killed in Battle Between AQAP and Popular Committees,” Yemen Times, September 5, 2013.

[13] Personal interview, Abyan-based local official, Sana`a, Yemen, September 2013.

[14] Personal interview, Sana`a-based analyst specializing in AQAP-related issues, Sana`a, Yemen, August 2013.

[15] See, for example, the following incidents: “Air Raids in Yemen Kill At Least 33 Suspected al-Qaeda Militants: Officials,” al-Arabiya, March 10, 2002; “Al-Qaeda Confirms Death of Yemen Leader Qaeed al-Dhahab,” al-Arabiya, September 15, 2013; “Terrorism Operations Grow in Hadramout,” Yemen Times, March 5, 2012; “Al-Qaeda Seizes Territory in Yemen’s Hadramawt,” Daily Star [Beirut], May 24, 2013.

[16] Mark Mazzetti, “No. 2 Leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen is Killed,” New York Times, January 24, 2013; “Al-Qa`ida Leader Killed in Shabwa,” al-Masdar, October 20, 2012.

[17] See John Brennan’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on August 8, 2012.

[18] See, for example, Gregory Johnsen, “Losing Yemen,” Foreign Policy, November 5, 2012.

[19] Scott Shane, “Yemen’s Leader Praises U.S. Drone Strikes,” New York Times, September 29, 2012.

[20] Personal interview, Yemeni political analyst, Sana`a, Yemen, August 2013.

[21] Gregory D. Johnsen, “How We Lost Yemen,” Foreign Policy, August 6, 2013.

[22] The Huthis are a Zaydi Shi`a insurgent group based in far northern Yemen known for their acerbic slogan, “God is Great, Death to America, Death to America, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The target of six wars waged by the central government during the final decade of Salih’s rule, they have appeared open, if skeptical, to political inclusion efforts undertaken since Hadi took office, retaining their well-armed militias.

[23] “Al-Qa`ida Claims Responsibility for the Attack Against Huthis,” al-Masdar, November 28, 2010.

[24] See, for example,

[25] Personal interview, Huthi-aligned Sa`da-based official, Sana`a, Yemen, October 2012.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Personal interview, Yemeni local journalist from al-Jawf Province, Sana`a, Yemen, October 2012.

[28] Joseph Logan, “Yemeni Secessionist Dangles Pledge to Fight Al Qaeda,” Reuters, May 17, 2012.

[29] The Southern Movement is a fractious coalition of differing factions calling for a return to autonomy in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which was an independent country until Yemen’s 1990 unification. While rooted in the rights-based protests that accompanied its 2007 emergence, the demand has increasingly shifted to the return of full independence, even if some factions continue to express openness regarding a federal solution. The mountains of the provinces of al-Dhale and Lahj are largely seen as the heartland of hard line factions while a disproportionate number of Southern Movement leaders in Abyan, the birthplace of President Hadi, have shown a comparative willingness to work with the current government.

[30] Personal interview, Southern Movement leader, Aden, Yemen, February 2013. Many supporters of the Southern Movement blame Sana`a-based political forces for the spread of hard line interpretations of Islam, which they cast as part of a deliberate effort to eliminate the south’s perceived cultural differences, a result of British influence, and the effects of the PDRY’s three decades of socialist governance.

[31] Farea al-Muslimi, “Returned South Yemen Leader: ‘Peaceful Struggle’ May Yet Win,” al-Monitor, September 11, 2012.

[32] “Tariq al Dahab, Yemen Al Qaeda Leader, Dead, Says Terrorist Group,” Associated Press, February 20, 2012.

[33] “Al-Qaeda Gunmen Pull Out of Yemen Town,” al-Arabiya, January 25, 2012.

[34] Personal interview, local security official, Sana`a, Yemen, August 2013; Francois-Xavier Tregan, “US Drone Strikes in Yemen Cast a Long Shadow Over Life on the Ground,” Guardian, July 23, 2013.

[35]  Personal interview, local tribal leader, Sana`a, Yemen, February 2013.

[36] Adam Baron, “Yemen Moves Against Al Qaeda-linked Fighters after Hostage Talks Falter,” McClatchy Newspapers, January 28, 2013.

[37] Personal interview, Sana`a-based political analyst, Sana`a, Yemen, August 2013.

[38] Personal interview, local tribal leader, Sana`a, Yemen, June 2013.

[39] Personal interview, Hadramawt-based security official, Sana`a, Yemen, August 2013.

[40] Personal interview, security official, Sana`a, Yemen, August 2013.

[41] White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said in 2012 that the United States is “very concerned about AQAP…it’s the most active operational franchise.” He also said that AQAP now had more than 1,000 members. See Paul Cruickshank, “Brennan on Bin Laden Raid, and ‘Dangerous’ Yemen,” CNN, April 20, 2012.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up