In the last two weeks of September 2013, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) executed a series of complex attacks on Yemeni army installations. AQAP claimed responsibility for the operations in a stream of online media releases, one of which pictured al-Qa`ida’s amir of Abyan Province, Jalal Muhsin Balidi al-Murqoshi (also known as Abu Hamza), warning special forces soldiers captured in the raids against cooperating with the U.S.-backed counterterrorism alliance in Sana`a.[1] “There is no issue between the soldiers and us, except when they have made themselves armors for this oppressive lackey government,” al-Murqoshi said. “This soldier is the one who has lured himself into a protecting vest for the tawaghit (tyrants).”

In these detailed propaganda messages, however, AQAP never claimed direct responsibility for the growing number of assassinations targeting Yemeni military and security officials since interim President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi took office in early 2012 and crushed al-Qa`ida’s nascent governance project in Abyan Province and neighboring Shabwa Province. Nonetheless, and despite the lack of government evidence identifying the assassins, international media and state news coverage have broadly cast the hit-and-run tactics as the work of AQAP.[2] This narrative fails to account for historical patterns of political violence between the central government and armed factions in areas where today’s assassinations are occurring and overlooks the potential for violence in Yemen’s highly contested political transition currently underway.

With these considerations in mind, this article examines a dataset of 117 reported assassinations from June 2012,[3] when the U.S.-Yemeni partnership uprooted AQAP’s Islamic emirates, to December 15, 2013.[4] It identifies a number of assassination trends, and then cautions against assigning blanket responsibility to AQAP. It finds a more contextualized picture of the assassination campaign and highlights the potential risks of focusing too closely on AQAP in the complex dynamic unfolding on the ground.

Taxonomy of Assassinations
On the morning of September 24, 2013, a gunman on a motorcycle killed Yemeni Colonel Ali al-Dulaimi while he was on his way to work.[5] The assailant, who according to some reports used a weapon fixed with a silencer, made a swift escape. His victim was the head of finance at the city’s military hospital. No one claimed responsibility for the killing. Like the murder of al-Dulaimi, 93 percent of the 73 assassinations recorded in the dataset for 2013 involved firearms, most frequently employed by militants on motorbikes.[6] Since June 2012, the monthly total of assassinations ranged from two to 14, with September and October 2013 recording the highest number.[7] The geographical spread of these attacks shifted sharply from 2012, when the majority occurred in Sana`a, to the last few months of 2012 and into 2013 when southern Hadramawt Province was the most affected.[8] A wider deterioration in security in Hadramawt, coupled with crackdowns on unregistered motorbikes and weapons in Sana`a,[9] likely contributed to this geographical shift.[10]

Another notable trend was the diminishing role of bombs, which accounted for 25% of the 50 assassinations in 2012.[11] Given that the highest profile assassinations in the last two years were bombings,[12] which terrorist groups often use against high-value and hard-to-reach targets,[13] the trend of more armed attacks and fewer bombings may be a reflection of the status of the targets, who have more frequently been middle-ranking officials.[14] Several other scenarios could explain this increased reliance on firearm attacks, such as decreasing capacity of existing assailants to make and plant bombs, or new assailants who lack bomb-making skills. There is no evidence, however, to confirm any of these possible explanations.

Data from news coverage of the attacks and anecdotal reports indicate that assailants are probably conducting fairly extensive surveillance of their victims. Almost 40% of those targeted in 2013 were on their way to, or from work, while others died as they were eating in restaurants, or leaving Friday prayers.[15] Given that security forces have experienced previous periods of assassinations, such as the AQAP insurgency in 2010, the patterns seem to demonstrate relatively poor levels of personal security, suggesting that they have not adapted to this phenomenon.[16]

Who is Responsible?
AQAP laid claim to a similar targeted insurgency on the state in 2010, which AQAP analyst Gregory Johnson dubbed the “year of the motorbike assassination.”[17] Johnsen noted a similar shift in attack methodology to that seen since 2012: from a bomb-centric approach to an increasing reliance on motorcycle gunmen. Now, as in 2010, in Johnson’s words, “this less technically skilled approach…is reaping more dead officers.”[18] This suggests that the assassination trend is not a new phenomenon and is instead history repeating itself.

Indeed, similar to the 2012-2013 period, the 2010 spate of motorcycle assassinations coincided with intense U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism operations. Yet also like today, the 2010 assassinations took place amidst rising political tensions. At the time, these tensions were between armed forces and intelligence personnel affiliated with the northern-based regime and a spreading opposition movement, known as Hiraak.[19] Much of the vigilantism and political violence against northern security officials reported in 2010 was attributed to Hiraaki elements,[20] although some Hiraaki leaders argued that the killings were false flag operations carried out by pro-government militias to discredit the separatist movement.[21] The absence of claims of responsibility and public investigations into the killings have only perpetuated unknowns and conspiracy theories.

While Yemen’s internationally-monitored political transition has restored public confidence through military restructuring decrees and the convening of an inclusive National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the situation remains in many ways unchanged today. AQAP continues to promote the killing of Yemeni military and security forces, although the group has yet to claim any of the motorbike assassinations, and the Yemeni government has provided no evidence tying AQAP to the murders—even though it continues to lay blame on the group for the killings. This atmosphere has bred conspiracies, particularly among southern separatists, that northerners are either responsible for some assassinations of southern security officials, or are in cahoots with AQAP toward the same end.[22] Ex-President Salih and his longtime ally General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, considered Yemen’s two most powerful actors for decades, are the highest profile if not likeliest suspects.[23]

The fact that the majority of assassinations are occurring in southern Hadramawt is probably aggravating this perception.[24] As argued by one Yemeni political analyst, “The assassinations are not random. They are part of a plan. It’s not just one party; al-Qa`ida are there, but Sana`a-based parties are also heavily involved.”[25]

While it remains unclear who is behind the assassinations, the effects of the campaign appear more palpable. According to an official in the Yemeni Ministry of Defense, “people who have information about the relationship between al-Qa`ida and the old regime are scared to talk now. The assassination campaign has heightened their fears. That’s the goal of it.”[26] According to a southern political leader participating in NDC talks, Yemeni factions are fighting the equivalent of a civil war “under the shade of security chaos.”[27] Others commonly frame the motorbike assassinations as a way to undermine President Hadi’s transitional government and underscore the relative stability offered by the former regime.[28]

Conclusion: Reactionary Risks
Blanket attribution of the attacks to AQAP not only glosses over a complex landscape of actors, but reinforces perceptions of the threat the organization poses.[29] It also affords a degree of deniability for those implicated in the killing of so many Yemenis. This ambiguity—and hence reluctance to claim responsibility for assassinations—may also minimize the potential backlash against assailants from the general population, and perhaps more importantly avert tribal vendettas in the southern provinces where AQAP has sought refuge.[30] Indeed, one of the keys to AQAP’s resiliency in Yemen has been the group’s ability to coexist with populations on the margins of the central government’s patronage networks.

Attributing the attacks to AQAP without evidence could prove even more detrimental. Such assumptions free the central government’s hand to carry out reactionary operations in areas where such heavy-handed tactics form some of the roots of secessionist fervor. These concerns were illustrated in early December 2013 when Yemeni soldiers shot dead a well-respected Hadrami tribal shaykh and several of his guards, who the Ministry of Defense initially reported were al-Qa`ida militants.[31] The claim was rescinded hours later, but did little to assuage local ire encapsulated in a December 10 statement from the Hadramawt Tribes Alliance demanding the withdrawal of corrupt Yemeni military and security forces.[32] Multiple rounds of negotiations have faltered and bloody battles have continued between state forces and the tribal alliance.[33] As long as these brazen assassinations continue, political violence could soon overtake the political process in Yemen.

Casey L. Coombs is a freelance journalist based in Sana`a, Yemen, since February 2012.

Hannah Poppy is an intelligence analyst covering the Middle East at The Risk Advisory Group. She worked in Sana`a from September 2011 to June 2012.

[1] “Al-Malahim Media Presents a New Video Message from al-Qa’idah in the Arabian Peninsula: ‘Repelling the Transgressor #2,’”, October 16, 2013.

[2] “Yemen Jihadists Unleash Wave of Killings,” United Press International, November 1, 2012; “Yemen: Counterterrorism Forces Raided an al-Qaeda Hideout,” Embassy of the Republic of Yemen, Washington, D.C., January 13, 2013.

[3] See Yasser al-Yafei, “Assassinations in South Yemen: Al-Qaeda or Settling Scores?” al-Akhbar, January 5, 2012, for a discussion of sporadic assassinations in southern provinces reported during the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.

[4] For the purposes of this article, “assassination” is defined as “the targeted killing of a high profile individual for political or ideological motives, on the basis of their individual identity and/or status or occupational function.” Incidents are only recorded when they can be verified by at least three different sources; therefore, the actual number of assassinations is likely higher. All data is from, a subscription-based site designed by The Risk Advisory Group.

[5]  “Martyrdom of Colonel Ali al-Dailami Shot Dead by Gunmen on a Motorcycle in Front of the Military Hospital,”, September 24, 2013.

[6] This data is from, a subscription-based site designed by The Risk Advisory Group.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Yemeni government made repeated attempts to crack down on unregistered motorcycles in Sana`a, before finally instituting an indefinite ban on all motorcycles in the capital starting December 1, 2013.

[10] “Yemen Bans Motorbikes in Sanaa Because of Attacks,” Agence France-Presse, December 1, 2013; Mohammed bin Sallam, “Motorcycle Assassinations Prompt Crack Down By Reconciliation Government,” Yemen Times, November 14, 2012.

[11] This data is from, a subscription-based site designed by The Risk Advisory Group.

[12] On June 18, 2012, a suicide bomber killed General Ali Salem Qatn, who commanded military operations to reclaim Abyan. See Laura Kasinof, “Yemeni Commander Killed in Suicide Bombing,” New York Times, June 18, 2012.

[13] Mia M. Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Global Phenomenon of Suicide Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[14] This data is from, a subscription-based site designed by The Risk Advisory Group.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The pattern of attacks suggests that neither military officials (including those accompanied by guards) nor intelligence officers are varying their routes to and from work. Informal off-the-record conversations with high-level members of the security forces also suggest that they have made little effort to keep the nature of their work secret.

[17] Gregory Johnsen, “The Year of the Motorbike Assassination,” Waq al-Waq, October 13, 2010. Also see Gabriel Koehler-Derrick ed., A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes, and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2011).

[18] Johnsen.

[19] Hiraak formed in 2007 as a loose federation of aggrieved factions seeking reparations for two decades of subjugation since Salih’s former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in Sana`a defeated the Aden-based People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in a 1994 civil war and forcibly joined the polities. Scholar Sarah Phillips identified “the grand corruption and exclusion of most groups from access to public resources” as “the key drivers for possible political violence in Yemen.” See Sarah Phillips et al., “Understanding the Routes In and Out of Political Violence: An Assessment of the Linkages Between Identity, Politics, Exclusion, Inequality and Political Violence in EMAD Countries,” Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, September 2006.

[20] Mohammed al-Qadhi, “Killings Deepen Yemeni Rift,” The National, July 22, 2009; Mohammed al-Qadhi, “Yemeni Government and Secessionists Trade Blame for Deaths,” The National, December 4, 2009.

[21] Al-Qadhi, “Yemeni Government and Secessionists Trade Blame for Deaths.” For a detailed discussion of pro-government militias, see “In the Name of Unity: The Yemeni Government’s Brutal Response to Southern Movement Protests,” Human Rights Watch, 2009.

[22] Ali Ibrahim al-Moshki, “Eight Yemeni Soldiers Arrested on Suspicion of Conspiring with Militants,” Yemen Times, November 14, 2013.

[23] This is especially the case after Ali Mohsin defected from the Salih regime early in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and drastically altered the balance of power. See “Yemen Plagued by Assassinations,” al-Monitor, October 18, 2013.

[24] See Andrew Michaels and Sakhr Ayyash, “AQAP’s Resilience in Yemen,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013). AQAP’s rise coincided with Hiraak’s. Also see Iona Craig, “Yemeni Politics Complicates US Counterterrorism Efforts,” al-Jazira, October 3, 2013.

[25] Peter Salisbury, “Yemen’s ‘Hidden Wars’ Threaten Peace Process,” al-Jazira, December 3, 2013.

[26] Personal interview, Yemeni Ministry of Defense official, Sana`a, Yemen, November 2013.

[27] Personal interview, Hiraaki leader, Aden, Yemen, December 2012.

[28] Ali Ibrahim al-Moshki, “Targeting Officials: Assassination Toll Casts Shadow on Yemen,” Yemen Times, November 19, 2013.

[29] Personal interview, Yemeni Ministry of Defense official, November 2013; personal interview, Yemeni scholar, January 2013.

[30] Scott Atran, “Moral Imperatives and Democratic Dynamics in the Fight Against AQAP in the Context of the Arab Spring: Research and Policy Challenges,” Report for the National Security Initiative and Department of Defense, August 2011, pp. 34-35.

[31] Haykal Bafana, “Hadhramaut and South Arabia: Hadhramaut In A State Of Flux,” Haykal Bafana blog, December 19, 2013; “Tribesmen in Hadramout Blow Up Oil Piping, Strikes in Mukalla Continue,” Yemen Times, January 7, 2014.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Tribesmen Kill 4 Yemen Troops in New Assault,” Gulf Times, January 12, 2014.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up