Abstract: The civil war in Yemen is providing an ideal operational environment for al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The war has acted as a catalyst for the organization’s evolution. AQAP is now focused on implementing a more covert strategy that allows it to expand its ties to local communities and to further enmesh itself within some forces battling the Houthis and their allies. These deepening ties with local communities and anti-Houthi forces mean that AQAP will be even more resilient and more difficult to combat. 

The civil war in Yemen has been a gift to al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP, like all insurgent groups, thrives in environments where state authority is weak or non-existent, where poverty is endemic, and where opposition forces are fragmented. The months of unrelenting war in Yemen have amplified all of these conditions. AQAP is honing and refining its capabilities in multiple areas, and in what is a dangerous parallel with Syria, it is deepening its ties to local communities and enmeshing itself within the groups that oppose Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their allies.

Yemen’s political landscape is as complex and unforgiving as its rugged terrain. The country’s civil war mirrors this complexity. The civil war is not being fought by two parties but rather by multiple groups whose loyalties are often fluid. The war has drawn in outside powers, most notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that are backing Yemen’s internationally recognized government in its fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The Houthis, a predominantly Zaidi Shi`a revivalist movement, are currently allied with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh along with a significant portion of the Yemeni Army that has remained loyal to the former president.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners launched “Operation Decisive Storm,” a military campaign that was ostensibly designed to defeat the Houthis and reinstall Yemen’s government in exile, led by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. While the campaign has thus far failed to achieve its aims, it has helped create an ideal operational space for AQAP, one of al-Qa`ida’s most nimble and resilient franchises. AQAP acted decisively to fill the power vacuum left by the unraveling of Yemen’s Armed Forces (YAF) and its limited state structures. While AQAP is no longer overtly holding territory, the organization’s influence and operational reach extend across much of southern Yemen.1

AQAP, which is now better funded and armed than at any point in its history,a has implemented a three-point strategy. First, AQAP has realized that it cannot alienate those it seeks to govern by enforcing all aspects of its understanding of Islamic law. It is thus demonstrating its capacity to ‘govern’ and provide basic services, most particularly security. Second, AQAP is deepening its ties with Yemen’s tribes whose power has been enhanced by the civil war. Third, AQAP is enmeshing itself within some of those forces fighting against the Houthis and their allies. Concurrent with this three-point strategy and in support of it, AQAP is working to further develop its intelligence and counterintelligence cells. It is also developing its capacity to utilize what can be termed semi-conventional tactics on the battlefield.b

Yemen (Rowan Technology)

Lessons Learned
The popular uprising against Saleh in 2011 provided AQAP with an operational environment that was not too different from the one that now exists in large parts of southern Yemen. The contested uprising against Saleh—who remained popular with many Yemenis—sowed dissent within the YAF.2 The dissent within the Yemeni Army and the removal of key units from vulnerable parts of southern Yemen left a void that AQAP quickly filled. By March 2011, AQAP was in control of large parts of the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa and declared the formation of an Islamic emirate in parts of both governorates.3 In late May 2011, AQAP, which by then had begun referring to parts of its organization as Ansar al-Sharia, seized the town of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan. AQAP was able to maintain control of parts of Abyan and Zinjibar until May 2012 when a successful offensive was launched by a combination of Yemeni Army units and tribal militias that were carefully aided by the United States.4

AQAP’s seizure of Zinjibar and the surrounding areas provided it with its first opportunity to hold and ‘govern’ a territory. While AQAP was eventually forced out of the governorate with heavy losses, the year in which it controlled the area was instructive. AQAP’s reign over parts of Abyan and Shabwa was an experiment in which its leadership was able to test how far it could go in imposing its interpretation of Islamic law. During this period, AQAP’s leadership was divided among those who favored a maximalist approach, which involved enforcing all aspects of its version of sharia law, and the gradualists, who favored a step-by-step approach. c For most of the year in which it ruled over Abyan, AQAP pursued more of a maximalist approach by introducing the Islamic penal code and irregularly enforced a ban on the widely used mild-narcotic qat.d

Most critically, AQAP’s version of sharia law in many cases superseded tribal law, which is relied upon to settle disputes between tribal members. This undermined the authority of tribal law and of tribal leaders who were not prepared to cede authority to men who were not from the area, not members of local tribes, and—in some cases—were not even Yemeni.e

AQAP also attempted to implement public works programs. It refurbished a number of water wells, fixed damaged streets, repaired water mains, and, in the early months of its control over the governorate, provided limited food aid to the poorest residents—though always with strings attached.6e However, as the organization came under pressure during the early months of 2012, it became far less concerned with meeting the needs of the population it claimed to govern. It increasingly targeted tribal figures deemed to be non-compliant.

More than anything, AQAP’s harsh approach to governance cost it its gains in Abyan and paved the way for a serious—if temporary—defeat. In May 2012, the YAF, supported by elements of the United States Armed Forces, launched an offensive that relied heavily on tribal militias.7 The support of these militias proved critical to the defeat of AQAP. Tribal militias provided intelligence on AQAP’s positions, movements, weapons caches, and escape routes. In a period of weeks, AQAP went from a high level of operational freedom to fleeing—often on foot—either singly or in small bands.8

AQAP’s defeat did not go unanalyzed by its leadership. In May and August of 2012, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the late leader of AQAP, penned two letters to his counterpart in al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).9 In these letters, al-Wuhayshi claimed that AQAP was not defeated but had staged a strategic withdrawal. In the same letters, he warned his counterpart to adopt a gradualist approach to implementing Islamic law. Al-Wuhayshi also wrote that local tribes were AQAP’s most formidable enemies and the greatest obstacle to it maintaining control. Some of AQAP’s leaders realized that to be successful, at least over the long-term, they must have abiding local support.10 Apart from some coastal areas, this support is contingent on successfully engaging with Yemen’s tribal leaders. Yet, many of Yemen’s tribes are quite democratic and resist top-down authority, especially when those trying to assert their authority are outsiders.11

A New Approach to Tribal Engagement
Following AQAP’s expulsion from Abyan and parts of Shabwa in 2012, many of its members fled to the mountain redoubts of the governorate of al-Bayda, where AQAP has long maintained a presence.12 Since antiquity, this strategic area has been contested because it is a gateway from the southern coast to Yemen’s central highlands. The clans and tribes of al-Bayda are particularly fractious and extractive. The divided nature of its tribes has meant that AQAP has had more success penetrating al-Bayda’s tribal matrix than elsewhere in Yemen. AQAP and its earlier iterations had tried and largely failed to secure the enduring support of cohesive and insular tribes in other parts of Yemen, such as the governorates of Marib and al-Jawf.13

Al-Bayda is different. Here, AQAP exploited inter-tribal rivalries by leveraging its access to arms, funds, and the military acumen of some of its ranking members in exchange for safe havens. In 2012 and 2013, AQAP inserted itself into one of al-Bayda’s inter-tribal feuds by backing Tareq al-Dhahab, a ranking member of the Dhahab clan who had been passed over for a leadership position within the locally powerful Qayfa tribe.14 However, the mistake AQAP made was backing al-Dhahab in an overt manner and insisting that al-Dhahab’s fighters proclaim their loyalty to AQAP. This led to al-Dhahab’s defeat by tribal militias backed by the Yemeni Army. The Yemeni government, which at that time was still functioning, used the threat of airstrikes and, most critically, the promise of increased aid to get local tribes to fight al-Dhahab and his men.15

It was not until 2014, when AQAP faced a sustained offensive by Houthi and allied forces, that it began refining its approach to tribal engagement.16 AQAP made a conscious effort to mirror the Houthis’ more successful engagement efforts.17g The Houthis, who have long relied on coalition-building among Yemen’s northwest-based tribes, do not insist on—and often discourage—overt alliances. Their approach is pragmatic and strategic.18 They offer arbitration, expertise, weapons, and, most importantly, funds to those tribal leaders who agree to fight on their behalf.19

Screen capture from a November 2016 AQAP video

Embracing Gradualism
AQAP’s modified approach to tribal engagement was a victory for those among its leaders who pushed for the acceptance of a more nuanced strategy. This new strategy, which included promises of cash payments in exchange for support, was used in the lead up to AQAP’s April 2015 seizure of al-Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city. AQAP’s move into al-Mukalla was rapid and appeared to come with little warning. The swiftness of the group’s takeover of al-Mukalla and much of the southern half of the Hadramawt governorate was aided by months of preparation.20 The preparation consisted of overtures to those tribal leaders and local leaders that AQAP deemed to be sympathetic to its cause. In effect, AQAP spent months building coalitions with leaders that they identified as amenable to its cause and bought off those whom were not with promises of money and weapons.21 These efforts laid the groundwork for the rapid and largely bloodless April takeover of the city.

The speed of its takeover of al-Mukalla allowed AQAP to seize weapons and materiel from nearby Yemeni Army and Central Security Force bases. Most importantly, AQAP seized an estimated $100 million from the al-Mukalla branch of the Yemeni Central Bank.22 The money, far more than the weapons, was critical to AQAP’s continued success; it allowed it to expand its recruitment efforts and most importantly, to fund its engagement efforts and limited public works projects in al-Mukalla.23

While AQAP focused on recruitment, training, and engagement efforts across the southern half of Yemen, it left the day-to-day governance of al-Mukalla and much of the southern half of Hadramawt to local leaders with whom it had established relationships.24 The decision to empower local leaders and allow them to govern as proxies is reflective of AQAP’s acceptance of a more covert strategy. This strategy is labeled by some within AQAP as the al-yad al-makhfi, or invisible hand strategy.25 AQAP also—with some exceptions—largely resisted the temptation to impose the most severe aspects of its interpretation of Islamic law in al-Mukalla.h In al-Mukalla, AQAP managed to build a measure of goodwill due to this relative restraint and its provision of limited public works.26

In April 2016, Saudi- and Emirati-backed pro-government forces retook al-Mukalla. While coalition officials claimed that this was a resounding defeat for AQAP, AQAP called its withdrawal from the city a strategic retreat that was undertaken to ensure civilian lives were not lost. 27 The coalition effort to retake the city resulted in few deaths and in little damage to the city. In many respects, AQAP’s yearlong occupation of a city of 300,000 validated the benefits of gradualism and of the ‘hidden hand’ approach to governance.

The ‘Hidden Hand’ Strategy
While AQAP has moved its forces from al-Mukalla, thanks to its gradualist approach, it still exercises control within the city and over the surrounding countryside.28 AQAP anticipated and planned its withdrawal from al-Mukalla. Its leadership learned firsthand the perils of trying to face down conventional forces backed by air assets in 2012. AQAP is also watching the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria where conventional forces have inflicted heavy losses on the Islamic State. AQAP’s gradualists clearly favor giving up territory rather than exposing the organization to heavy losses that would also cost it much of the limited goodwill that it has accrued over the last two years. This goodwill is viewed as critical by many within AQAP. This view has been further buttressed by the fact that the Islamic State in Yemen’s brutal tactics have cost it much of the limited support that it once enjoyed.

This control is exercised through the network of informants and sympathizers that AQAP built during its year in al-Mukalla. This network acts as its eyes and ears in the city as well as its envoys to some members of the globally linked Hadrawmi business community. The network was designed to function as a stay-behind force when AQAP withdrew.29

Enhancing intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities has long been a priority for AQAP both as a means to ensure the survival of the organization and as a means to achieve its short- and medium-term goals. However, its use of a hidden hand approach to governance and influence operations has meant that it has prioritized the vetting, funding, and training of more intelligence and counterintelligence cells.30i AQAP clearly recognizes the value—and dangers—of human intelligence in particular. It assigns a high priority to assassinating members of Yemen’s intelligence services who pose a threat to the group.31 AQAP’s prioritization of the formation of more intelligence cells aligns with its leadership’s embrace of what could be called the long war. It is employing tactics that will prevent it from being easily targeted and that allow it to continue to act through proxies.

Many of these new intelligence cells are tasked with infiltrating tribal militias and other nominally pro-government forces that are fighting the Houthis. The members of these AQAP cells—some of whom have been recruited from the Yemeni intelligence services—are charged with identifying ranking individuals who may be sympathetic to AQAP’s cause and then offering financial and military aid.j While these efforts are ongoing throughout southern Yemen, AQAP is focusing on the strategic frontline areas of Taiz and Ibb as well as northern al-Bayda.32

In these areas, forces opposing the Houthis—especially in Taiz—are stretched thin and often suffer from shortages of money and materiel. As one commander of a militia based in Taiz explained, “when you are days, if not hours from being over-run, you do not care where the supplies or men come from or what their beliefs are so long as they can fight and are fighting the same enemy you are.” The commander added, “we can sort out al-Qa`ida after we’ve beaten the Houthis.”33

It is likely that many of the leaders of rebel groups involved in the early stages of the uprising against Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria thought the same thing as the commander in Taiz—that al-Qa`ida can be dealt with after defeating Assad. As is now clear in Syria, al-Qa`ida and—to a lesser degree—the Islamic State have woven themselves into the very fabric of these groups by leveraging their fighting capabilities, their access to weaponry, and their superior organizational capabilities in exchange for support.34 In effect, AQAP, like many of the al-Qa`ida franchises, is undergoing a kind of indigenization whereby they identify with—at least on a tactical level—the aims of some of those groups fighting the Houthis. There is also a sectarian element to the war in Yemen, although this is far more limited than in Syria. In Yemen, AQAP readily taps into these sectarian tensions and exacerbates them where possible. In fighting the Houthis, AQAP’s messaging emphasizes the idea that it is fighting Shi`a apostates that are acting as agents of Iran.

The sectarian tensions and the fragmentary nature of those forces fighting against the Houthis are providing AQAP with ample opportunities to enmesh itself within those forces fighting against the Houthis.35k Though it must be noted that AQAP has also targeted some pro-government forces, the tempo of these attacks has decreased markedly over the last year.l Many of the militias and reconstituted units of the Yemeni Army that are loyal to the government in exile are poorly trained and poorly equipped. In addition, many of these forces are also unwilling and uninterested in fighting the Houthis and their allies. This is due to both the Houthis’ reputation as formidable fighters and the fact that most of the men who make up these units are drawn from the south. As southerners, many of them are more interested in southern independence than fighting against the northern-based Houthis and for a unified Yemen.36

The Saudi-led coalition has struggled to motivate newly created and reconstituted pro-government forces to consistently support frontline fighters in fiercely contested areas like Taiz. The failure by Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces to consistently support frontline fighters has allowed AQAP to fill the void by providing relatively well-trained and well-equipped operatives. AQAP views this as an opportunity and has enmeshed its fighters among the anti-Houthi militias fighting in these areas. In places like Taiz, AQAP maintains an overt and covert presence. It has advisers and members of its intelligence cells who do not openly identify as AQAP operatives serving within anti-Houthi groups. At the same time, AQAP has assembled groups of fighters who openly fight under its flag. These detachments frequently act as strategic reserves for anti-Houthi militias fighting in Taiz and parts of Dhale governorate. A commander of a pro-government militia in Dhale explained, “they [AQAP] have prevented many defeats [of pro-government forces by Houthi-allied forces] and because of that they are winning support. As many of my own men know, they pay better and their men never seem to run out of ammunition or food. Many of the men who were fighting with us have joined them not because of what they teach but because of how they fight and what they pay.”37

In what seems to be another indication of the acceptance of a more gradualist approach to achieving its goals, AQAP is focused on making itself indispensable to many of the anti-Houthi forces fighting along the frontlines of Yemen’s civil war. Its ideological and religious goals have been made secondary—at least temporarily—to its goal of securing local support. This has been reflected by the diminished tempo of its attacks on anti-Houthi forces. There are few reports in recent months of attacks on anti-Houthi forces in frontline areas.

AQAP’s enmeshment within anti-Houthi forces has also allowed AQAP to enhance its war fighting capabilities in multiple areas. The civil war has acted as a catalyst for AQAP’s understanding of and ability to fuse irregular warfare tactics with conventional tactics reliant on heavy weaponry. Due to its seizure of stockpiles of weapons in 2015, AQAP now has access to a range of heavy weaponry.38 It initially had little experience with using such weapons systems, but this has changed over the last year as AQAP has fought set piece battles against Houthi-allied forces. AQAP, much like the Houthis and the Islamic State, has dramatically increased its ability to engage in semi-conventional warfare.39

Looking Forward
Local support is fundamental to AQAP’s ability to sustain itself and to its expansion in Yemen. However, such support is, to a great extent, contingent on AQAP’s willingness to restrain itself and not alienate those it seeks to govern. The leadership of AQAP has incorporated the lessons learned during its defeats and setbacks in 2012-2014. This is evidenced by AQAP’s acceptance—at least for now—of the gradualist approach advocated for by its late leader, al-Wuhayshi, and accepted by, at least to some degree, its current leader, al-Raymi. Fighting the long war necessitates patience, time, and a far more nuanced approach to engaging Yemen’s tribes and the fragmented forces opposing the Houthis and their allies.

This strategy suggests that AQAP is currently focused on organizational growth in Yemen. While AQAP’s increasing attention to more parochial concerns likely means that it is less concerned with direct attacks against foreign targets, its adoption of what is a far more pragmatic path to growth should be of great concern to the region and the United States.m AQAP’s enmeshment within some anti-Houthi forces and its deepening ties with some tribal communities mean that it is even more resilient and harder to combat. This combined with the fact that the civil war in Yemen will likely continue—at least on a low level—for years means that AQAP’s future is more secure than ever.     CTC

Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at The Jamestown Foundation where he specializes in Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Yemen. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous publications including Islamic Affairs Analyst, The Economist, The National Interest, and The Christian Science Monitor. He has completed numerous in-depth, field-based studies in Yemen and Somalia on topics ranging from prison radicalization to insurgent tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Substantive Notes
[a] This observation by the author is based on numerous interviews with observers of al-Qa`ida in Yemen as well as open source information.

[b] The Yemeni Armed Forces, in particular the Yemeni Army, have never been a particularly cohesive fighting force. Many units were and are administered like personal fiefdoms by their commanding officers, where soldiers frequently view orders from their commanders as suggestions rather than orders. Many units up to the brigade level are organized according to tribal affiliations with ‘stronger’ tribes being assigned to the better-funded and better-equipped units.

[c] There is an ongoing debate among AQAP’s relatively diffuse leadership about how critical tribal allies are, which also impacts arguments about how flexible AQAP should be when it comes to enforcing its understanding of sharia and, more broadly, how it governs. AQAP’s current leader, Qasim al-Raymi, worked closely with AQAP’s former leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi who advocated for a gradualist approach to governance. It is likely that al-Raymi shares at least some of al-Wuhayshi’s ideas about how to engage with local populations. However, it should also be noted that al-Raymi referred to the United States in late 2015 as the ‘primary enemy.’ This view, if still held, will have to be balanced against AQAP’s very local battle against the Houthis and their allies. Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP Leader says America is the ‘Primary Enemy,’” Long War Journal, December 24, 2015.

[d] Reports from residents of the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar reflect the variance of AQAP’s—or Ansar al-Sharia’s—approach to enforcing Islamic law and the ban on qat. In some areas under the control of AQAP, all aspects of Islamic law were rigorously enforced while in other areas AQAP was more tolerant. With qat in particular, AQAP’s willingness to enforce varied over the months in which it ruled parts of Abyan. While qat is not as popular in southern Yemen as it is in the north, it is still used by a significant percentage of the population, and most critically, the trade in qat is the only lucrative source of employment in many areas.

[e] In 2011 and 2012, AQAP had a significant number of fighters from Somalia and of Somali descent. Coastal Abyan and Aden are home to large numbers of Somali refugees and second- and third-generation immigrants from Somalia. AQAP’s use of foreign fighters proved to be highly problematic in the non-coastal and more ‘tribal’ parts of Abyan. It has been the author’s observation that a significant number of Yemenis—especially those living in the north and more mountainous areas—are quite racist when it comes to Africans. AQAP’s fighters of Somali descent were subject to summary execution when caught by tribal militias. Author interviews, various Yemeni tribal engagement officers, 2012-2013.

[f] As conditions deteriorated in Abyan in 2012, AQAP made the provision of food and other items dependent on a community’s willingness to provide recruits for AQAP. These recruits—most of them forced—were regarded by AQAP as unreliable and therefore largely expendable. Thus, they were frequently used as decoys and in suicide operations.

[g] AQAP’s renewed focus on tribal engagement is due in part to what it has learned from the Houthis, who have built coalitions that cross tribal and sectarian divisions. Both groups emphasize engaging with tribal leadership as a means to penetrate and sustain a presence within communities. AQAP is mirroring the Houthis’ relatively successful attempts to gain allies and build ‘coalitions’ of supporters in strategic parts of al-Shabwa, al-Bayda, Marib, and Dhamar. They are not observing from afar. Rather, in many areas, AQAP is competing directly with the Houthis for the same promises of support, access, and information from tribes and clans. In places like al-Bayda, tribal leaders routinely play one organization off the other in an attempt to extract better terms. AQAP lost a great deal of support in al-Bayda during 2014-15 due to its heavy-handed approach and its unwillingness to acknowledge the authority of established elders. In contrast with AQAP, the Houthi leadership went directly to the elders—those that were left—and asked them what they wanted and needed in exchange for their support. Author interviews, various Yemen-based experts and ex-government officials, September-November 2016.

[h] AQAP did publicly execute two men accused of spying and later displayed their bodies on planks. Mohammad Mukhashaf, “Al-Qaeda kills two Saudi accused of spying for America,” Reuters, June 17, 2015. AQAP is also reported to have overseen the stoning of a married woman who was accused of adultery. “Al-Qaeda stones woman to death for adultery in Yemen,” Middle East Eye, January 4, 2016. See also Gregory Johnsen, “Al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State Benefit as Yemen War Drags On,” CTC Sentinel 9:1 (2016).

[i] Much like Yemen’s civil war, the targeting of AQAP by drones in particular has sped up AQAP’s evolution. The drone attacks, some of which have successfully targeted AQAP’s leadership, have meant that AQAP has had to develop its counterintelligence capabilities and ability to ‘go dark’ in order to avoid being targeted. The drones attacks may well be acting as a kind of artificial form of ‘natural selection’ whereby those operatives who are sloppy and break protocols are killed, leaving behind operatives who are more careful and disciplined. The attacks on AQAP’s top and mid-tier leadership have also spurred the development of ‘apprenticeship’ programs whereby more experienced operatives train their replacements. While it is beyond the purview of this article, it should be noted that there are parallels with AQAP’s heightened attention to the development of intelligence cells and al-Shabaab’s development of its amniyat intelligence wing. The amniyat has proved critical to al-Shabaab’s ability to manage internal security and to co-opt, most often through violence, leaders among Somalia’s clans and sub-clans. Given that AQAP maintains a relationship with al-Shabaab, it is likely that the two organizations have exchanged notes on the best ways to set up and operate intelligence units.

[j] Yemen’s two primary intelligence services, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Political Security Bureau (PSB), have a checkered past when it comes to making use of militant salafi organizations when this is deemed useful to them and of being home to officers who are sympathetic to radical ideologies. Michael Knight, “Strengthening Yemeni Counterterrorism Forces: Challenges and Political Considerations,” Washington Institute, January 6, 2010.

[k] There are a multiplicity of forces fighting against the Houthis and their allies. These include reconstituted units of the Yemeni Army, tribal-based militias, people’s defense committees, and forces aligned with various southern separatist organizations.

[l] AQAP offered harsh criticism of the December 10 Islamic State attack on Yemeni soldiers at an army base in Aden. “Yemen’s Al-Qaeda distances itself from ‘deviant’ IS,” Middle East Online, December 15, 2016.

[m] While AQAP is presently devoting most of its resources and organizational energy on fighting the near-enemy in Yemen, it is still advocating attacks on the far-enemy. In the November issue of its English language publication, Inspire, AQAP continued its call for lone-wolf attacks on Western targets. The lone-wolf attacks cost AQAP very little if anything in terms of resources and allows them to maintain continue to burnish their ‘jihadi’ credentials. The attacks also are less likely to provoke a sustained response by Western powers that could cost the group local support. AQAP is arguably on a clear trajectory to becoming a far more parochial organization. AQAP’s recruitment strategies reflect this. It is more of a purely Yemeni organization than ever before. It is very careful not to use Somalis and other foreign recruits in sensitive areas. This now applies—though far less so—to Saudis as well, given the antipathy to Saudi Arabia in many parts of the country (even in those parts under the nominal control of KSA-backed forces).

[1] Author interview, multiple Yemeni officials and Yemeni journalists, November 2016.

[2] Author interview, multiple Yemeni security officials, October-November 2016.

[3] Lucas Winter, “The Ansar of Yemen: The Houthis and al-Qaeda,” Small Wars Journal, May 1, 2013.

[4] Michael Knights and Alexandre Mello, “Gulf Coalition Targeting AQAP in Yemen,” Washington Institute, May 10, 2016.

[5] Author interview, retired Yemeni official charged with tribal affairs, November 2016; author interview, Yemeni journalist, November 2016.

[6] Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Al-Qaida’s Wretched Utopia and the Battle for Hearts and Minds,” Guardian, April 30, 2012.

[7] Erica Gaston, “Sustainable Security in Yemen: Popular Committees in Abyan,” United States Institute of Peace, June 14, 2013.

[8] Author interviews, Yemeni security officials, April 2014; author interview, tribal official, November 2016.

[9] Written statements by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Letters to AQIM counterpart, retrieved from Timbuktu, Mali, and written in summer 2012. See documents obtained by Rukmini Callimachi at: http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/_international/_pdfs/al-qaida-papers-how-to-run-a-state.pdf

[10] Author interview, Yemeni journalist, November 2016.

[11] Shelagh Weir, A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007); Paul Desch, Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen (Gloucestershire, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1994).

[12] Sasha Gordon, “Tribal Militias in Yemen: Al-Bayda and Shabwa,” AEI: Critical Threats, February 7, 2013.

[13] Gabriel Koehler-Derrick ed., A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2011), pp. 99-105.

[14] Erwin van Veen, “Al-Qaeda in Radaa: Local Dispute or Global Challenge,” Insight on Conflict, January 25, 2014.

[15] Author interview, Yemeni official, November 2016.

[16] Ali Ibrahim al-Moshki, Houthis Control AQAP Stronghold, Yemen Times, October 30, 2014.

[17] Author interview, Yemeni journalist, October 2016; author interview, Yemen-based expert on the Houthis, November 2016.

[18] Barak A. Salmoni, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010).

[19] Koehler-Derrick, pp. 100-101.

[20] Author interviews, various Hadramawt based ex-government officials, October-November 2016.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Yara Bayoumy, “How Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen has made al-Qaeda Stronger and Richer,” Reuters, April 8, 2016.

[23] Saeed al-Batati, “The Truth Behind al-Qaeda’s takeover of Mukalla,” Al Jazeera, September 16, 2015.

[24] Michael Horton, “Capitalizing on Chaos: AQAP Advances in Yemen,” Terrorism Monitor 14:4 (2016).

[25] Author interview, Yemen-based expert on AQAP, November 2016.

[26] Yara Bayoumy, “How Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al-Qaeda stronger—and richer,” Reuters, April 8, 2016.

[27] Thomas Joscelyn, “Arab Coalition Enters AQAP Stronghold in Port City of Mukalla,” Long War Journal, April 25, 2016.

[28] Author interview, Yemen-based expert on AQAP, November 2016.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Author interviews, Yemen government officials and Yemen-based analysts, October-November 2016.

[32] Author interview, Yemen-based expert, November 2016.

[33] Author interview, militia commander, October 2016.

[34] Charles Lister, “The Dawn of Mass Jihad: Success in Syria Fuels al-Qa’ida’s Evolution,” CTC Sentinel 9:9 (2016).

[35] Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat,” CTC Sentinel 8:9 (2015).

[36] Michael Horton, “The Battle for Southern Yemen,” Jamestown Foundation, May 27, 2015.

[37] Author interview, militia commander, November 2016.

[38] “Al-Qaeda in Yemen seizes huge weapons depot from army,” Associated Press, April 17, 2015.

[39] Jonathan Spyer, “Blurred Boundaries: Changing Battlefields Drive Insurgent Innovation,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2016.

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