On december 25, 2009, a terrorist dispatched by al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 235 over Detroit, Michigan. Since the attack, instability in Yemen has emerged as a U.S. national security priority. Although the initial concern in the aftermath of the attack has waned, in recent weeks there has been increased suggestion that the Yemen-based AQAP has eclipsed “al-Qa`ida central” as the primary threat to U.S. national security.[1] This assessment comes as conditions in Yemen continue to deteriorate, and U.S. policy options for addressing Yemen’s confluence of crises are narrowing.

AQAP has evolved into an increasingly lethal and agile organization, with a proven track record of mounting operations within Yemen, regionally, and internationally. AQAP has been clear in stating its planned objectives, and it has repeatedly delivered on its threats. These concerns have been heightened by the presence of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-`Awlaqi in Yemen and his alleged role in inciting English-speaking foreigners to engage in violence and militancy. There are also increasing worries about the involvement of Western, and especially American, nationals in alleged domestic terrorist plots related to or connected with Yemen, AQAP, and Anwar al-`Awlaqi. Moreover, Yemen itself is being transformed from a rest and training arena into an actual theater of jihad.

This article examines the evolving threat from AQAP, including the possibility that the group has recruited a number of Americans. It also reviews how AQAP has turned Yemen into a theater of jihad, pursuing a strategy to destabilize the state and its security forces.

Gauging the Threat

According to media reports, the U.S. intelligence community recently estimated that there are approximately 100 al-Qa`ida fighters in Afghanistan and roughly 300 in Pakistan.[2] While it is admittedly difficult to obtain accurate numbers regarding the current size of AQAP, commonly cited estimates suggest that there are several hundred fighters in Yemen.[3] These consist of Yemenis, Saudis and various Arab nationals, as well as other foreigners including Westerners. Since January 2009, at least 12 non-Yemeni Arabs have been killed or captured, while 50 foreigners have been arrested by Yemeni authorities on suspicion of involvement with AQAP; these foreigners have been identified as British, French and Malaysian nationals, among others.[4] Reportedly, 12 Americans are among the 50 detained foreigners in Yemen, although there has been little information forthcoming about their status, or why they were detained.[5]

The lure of Yemen has received significant coverage, and there is considerable concern about Westerners who travel to the country. In January 2010, a report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations suggested that as many as 36 American ex-convicts who converted to Islam while in prison traveled to Yemen in 2009 to study Arabic. According to the committee’s report, some of these former convicts have since disappeared and are suspected of having joined AQAP.[6]

The Yemeni government has taken measures to address these issues. Visa waiting periods are now longer, and according to the Yemeni government visas are no longer available upon arrival at Sana`a International Airport. Additionally, due to the deteriorating security situation in the country (and the occasional exaggerated reporting of the situation), fewer foreign students are studying Arabic in Yemen.[7]

Compared to al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership in South Asia, AQAP is under significantly less pressure. The large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and a more aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan have degraded the capacity of al-Qa`ida central. By comparison, in Yemen there is no public U.S. military presence aside from training missions,[8] and after several U.S.-facilitated airstrikes in 2009 and 2010, these have reportedly all but stopped following a May 25 airstrike that inadvertently killed the deputy governor of Marib Province, Jabir al-Shabwani.[9] Although the Yemeni government has recently launched large-scale offensives against suspected AQAP operatives in the southern cities of Lawder and Huta, it has not been clear who the government has actually been fighting—whether it is AQAP, southern separatists, or disaffected tribes.[10]

According to some recent press reports, the debate around which al-Qa`ida faction is the greatest danger to U.S. national security centers on the magnitude and immediacy of the threat posed by each group. Al-Qa`ida central is still believed to represent the greater threat because of an assumption that it could mount a large-scale “complex” operation such as the 9/11 attacks. The Yemen-based AQAP, however, is reportedly a more “imminent” threat and is more likely to attack the United States, although by less “sophisticated” methods.[11] Moreover, there is concern that AQAP has had success in recruiting Westerners, including converts, who do not fit traditional terrorist profiles; it will be more difficult for U.S. security services to identify and disrupt plots led by these individuals.

AQAP’s Violence Spreads in Yemen

In Yemen, AQAP has been able to take advantage of the absence of the central government’s authority and presence in large swaths of the country to plot, plan, prepare, and mount operations domestically, regionally, and internationally. Since AQAP announced its formation in January 2009, the pace of attacks has increased. One recent assessment identified more than 30 AQAP incidents in Yemen so far this year.[12]

The group’s targets have been strikingly consistent. They include foreigners and expatriates, energy infrastructure, and government security forces. Since the merger that created AQAP, the group has also increasingly targeted Saudi Arabia, including trying to mount a suicide bombing campaign in the kingdom and attempting to assassinate the Saudi counterterrorism chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif. In many respects, AQAP has learned the lessons of the failed al-Qa`ida campaign in Saudi Arabia. AQAP avoids targeting Yemeni civilians, has a highly sophisticated media apparatus, and is cautious not to repeat the same mistakes made in Saudi Arabia.[13] Of greater concern, when initial operations have been unsuccessful, AQAP has re-attacked the same target, such as the U.S. Embassy in Sana`a[14] and Prince Muhammad in Saudi Arabia.[15] This serves as a stark warning with regard to the failure of the Christmas Day attack to destroy Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

Throughout much of 2010, there have been back and forth AQAP attacks and counterattacks by the Yemeni government (facilitated by the close support of the United States). Yemeni government claims of having dealt serious blows to the organization frequently proved overstated. After a period of relative calm for much of 2009, violence again returned to the capital in 2010. On April 26, 2010, British Ambassador Tim Torlot survived an attempt on his life when a suicide bomber targeted his convoy.[16] As Torlot’s convoy drove through Sana`a, the attacker stepped into traffic and detonated his explosives. The ambassador was unhurt, but several bystanders were wounded in the attack. AQAP subsequently claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination, and in September four individuals were charged by Yemeni authorities for their roles in the plot.[17]

The Torlot incident was strikingly similar to another attack that took place in March 2009. In that attack, a suicide bomber stepped into traffic and detonated his explosives just as a convoy from the South Korean Embassy was passing. The convoy was en route to the airport and was carrying investigators and the family members of the victims killed in an earlier suicide bombing in Shibam that killed four South Korean nationals.[18] In both incidents, the attackers knew their targets’ vehicles, routes and schedules, suggesting a level of prior knowledge. These attacks were especially concerning due to the heightened sense of vulnerability and exposure that comes with sitting in traffic in Sana`a.

In mid-June, AQAP attacked the Aden headquarters of the Political Security Organization (PSO) and broke out several imprisoned comrades. The attackers were reportedly dressed in military uniforms, and at least 10 security personnel were killed.[19] Violence in Aden continued throughout the summer, including an explosion outside a PSO building.[20]

In late summer, the Yemeni government engaged in two large-scale operations against towns where suspected AQAP operatives were said to be hiding. In August, intense fighting took place in the southern city of Lawder in Abyan Province. According to press reports, more than 30 people were killed, including 19 suspected militants.[21] In September, Yemeni forces mounted a similar operation in the town of Huta in Shabwa Province. In both cases, the Yemeni military laid siege to the towns after instructing the civilian populations to flee. In Huta, thousands of civilians have reportedly been displaced by the fighting. Reports in the Yemeni press claimed that Saudis and Somalis were among the AQAP operatives fighting against the government in Huta.[22] After retaking Huta, the Yemeni government said that it killed five AQAP fighters, and arrested an additional 32.[23] Despite these large operations, early indications suggest that many of the AQAP operatives believed to have been in the towns managed to recede into the countryside.[24]

Assassination Campaign

During the course of the summer of 2010, AQAP waged a coordinated campaign in Yemen’s southern provinces to assassinate senior government security and intelligence officers. In many of the attacks, the victims were shot by motorcycle-riding assailants. One Yemeni media outlet reported that by September some 50 officers had been killed in the campaign;[25] according to a Yemeni official, however, that figure was actually more than 60.[26] The campaign caused Yemeni authorities in September to announce a ban on motorcycles in urban areas of Abyan Province.[27]

During Ramadan 2010 (corresponding roughly to the first week of August through the first week of September), AQAP mounted nearly 12 attacks on government security targets.[28] At the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, AQAP escalated the campaign when it released a “hit list” of 55 security officers in Abyan.[29] The list identified by name 31 PSO officers, 15 criminal investigation officers, and nine military intelligence officers.[30] The campaign of violence continued into September when militants launched rocket-propelled grenades at the convoy of the deputy governor of Abyan Province, Ahmed Ghalib al-Rahawi.[31] Al-Rahawi, who escaped an earlier assassination attempt in August 2009, survived the attack.[32]

The assassination campaign serves to weaken government stability in Yemen while avoiding large numbers of civilian casualties, the latter of which could turn the population against AQAP. The intensity and pace of the attacks demonstrate AQAP’s increasing ability to strike at will at those serving the “illegitimate regime.” It has also provided a clear reminder to those who continue to serve in the military and state security apparatus of what awaits them should they not disassociate themselves from government service. Ultimately, the campaign has been a clear example of the steady erosion of state power in southern Yemen.


In early September 2010, Jonathan Evans, director-general of Britain’s Security Service, noted that the threats to the United Kingdom are increasingly originating from Yemen and Somalia.[33] According to Evans, there has been a “surge” in Yemen-related casework this year at MI5.[34] Similarly, in recent congressional testimony, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter noted the relative weakness of al-Qa`ida in Pakistan, while highlighting Yemen as a “key battleground.”[35] He cited AQAP’s method in the Christmas Day attack as making it much more difficult to successfully deter and disrupt.[36]

The evolving threat from Yemen is clear. AQAP has effectively “recast” the country as a legitimate venue to participate in jihad against an illegitimate ruler and a place to resist U.S. aggression. If increased U.S. counterterrorism assistance to Yemen only focuses on military and security cooperation, it will likely increase the grievances that fuel al-Qa`ida militancy and other opposition. There are fewer attractive policy options with regards to Yemen, and none of them offer any promise of solving the challenges posed by the deteriorating conditions in the country. An important first step, however, is to recognize that inattention is not an option. The United States and the international community must be fully engaged in Yemen. The country’s problems are no longer contained within its borders.

Dr. Christopher Boucek is an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the forthcoming book, Yemen on the Brink, September 2010.

[1]  Cameron Barr, “Obama’s Depiction of al-Qaeda Differs from Aides,” Washington Post, September 1, 2010.

[2] “Inside al-Qaeda,” Newsweek, September 4, 2010.

[3] Some reports suggest there may be up to 600 AQAP fighters in Yemen. For details, see Eric Schmitt and Scott Shane, “Aid to Fight Qaida Divides US Officials,” New York Times, September 15, 2010.

[4] “Yemen Arrests 50 Foreigners, Clashes Hit South,” Reuters, June 7, 2010.

[5]  Ibid.

[6] “Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia: A Ticking Time Bomb,” report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, January 21, 2010. While some have disputed the report’s accuracy, it does adequately represent the level of concern regarding Yemen.

[7] Previous Arabic language students in Yemen have included John Walker Lindh and Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab.

[8] Numbers differ from 25-50 (Lolita Baldor, “US Terror Training in Yemen Reflects Wider Program,” Associated Press, September 8, 2010) to nearly 75 (Schmitt and Shane).

[9] Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth, “A Secret Assault on Terror Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times, August 15, 2010.

[10] In addition to fighting a resurgent al-Qa`ida organization, the Yemeni government is also involved in two other conflicts. In Sa`da in the north of the country, the government has been fighting Shi`a Zaydi rebels known as the Huthis. In the former South Yemen, the government is facing an increasingly violent, albeit divided, southern secessionist movement. On top of these conflicts, the government has also been at odds with various tribes.

[11]  Baldor.

[12] Cody Curran and Patrick Knapp, “AQAP and Suspected AQAP Attacks in Yemen Tracker 2010,” AEI Critical Threats, September 23, 2010. Despite these figures, more than 80% of violence in Yemen is the result of disputes over access to water.

[13] For more on these points, see “Da’wa, Jihad, and Salafism in Saudi Arabia and Yemen,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 24, 2008; “Al-Qaeda in Yemen,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 7, 2009.

[14] The U.S. Embassy in Sana`a was attacked twice in 2008, in March and September.

[15] The Saudi press recently identified three other attempts made to assassinate Prince Muhammad, including the October 2009 attempt to smuggle in suicide belts from Yemen. For details, see Abdullah al-Oraifij, “Fourth Assassination Attempt Against Prince Foiled,” Saudi Gazette, August 16, 2010. Yusuf al-Shihri, brother-in-law of AQAP deputy commander Said al-Shihri and a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was killed in this incident.

[16]  “UK Envoy in Yemen Escapes ‘Suicide Bomb,’” BBC News, April 26, 2010.

[17]  “Four Qaeda Suspects Charged with Targeting Foreigners in Yemen,” Agence France-Presse, September 20, 2010.

[18]  There have been several attacks in Hadramawt, including a shooting that killed two Belgian tourists in January 2008.

[19]  “Yemen Gunmen in Deadly Raid on Aden Security Service HQ,” BBC News, June 19, 2010.

[20]  Al-Masdar.com, August 26, 2010.

[21]  “Yemen Troops Kill Two at Checkpoint in Troubled Town,” Agence France-Presse, September 19, 2010.

[22]  Nasser Arrabyee, “Four al-Qaeda Fighters Killed as Army Starts All Out Attack in al-Huta,” Yemen Observer, September 25, 2010.

[23]  “Yemen Forces Disable Bomb in Town Retaken from Qaeda: Govt,” Agence France-Presse, September 26, 2010.

[24] Ellen Knickmeyer, “Al Qaeda 2.0,” Global Post, September 27, 2010. Knickmeyer highlights the timing of these operations: the siege of Lawder coincided with the arrival in Sana`a of National Security Adviser John Brennan, while the Huta operation coincided with the Friends of Yemen meeting in New York City.

[25]  “Al Qaeda Claims Six Attacks in Yemen,” News Yemen, September 8, 2010.

[26]  Personal interview, Yemeni official, August 2010.

[27]  Benjamin Joffe-Walt, “Yemen Outlaws Motorcycles in Governorate Under Siege,” Jerusalem Post, September 19, 2010.

[28]  “Al Qaeda Attacks Yemeni Military Installations,” BBC Arabic, September 9, 2010.

[29] “Qaeda Threatens 55 Yemeni Security Officers by Name,” Agence France-Presse, September 10, 2010. See also Ghamdan al-Yusufi, “Report on Al-Qaida Threat to Assassinate 54 Yemeni Security Officials in Abyan,” Elaph.com, September 20, 2010. Elaph.com lists only 54 officers, not 55.

[30]  Ibid.

[31] “Yemen’s Abyan Deputy Governor Survives Qaida Assassination Attempt,” Xinhua, September 18, 2010. Other reports have cited a roadside bomb rather than a rocket-propelled grenade in the attack. See “Yemen Official Escapes Death in Ambush, Five People Wounded,” Jordan Times, September 19, 2010.

[32]  “Security Official Escapes Assassination in Southern Yemen,” News Yemen, September 18, 2010.

[33]  Selah Hennessy, “MI5: Somalia, Yemen Pose Increasing Threat to Security,” Voice of America, September 17, 2010.

[34]  Gordon Corera, “MI5 Head Warns of Serious Risk of UK Terrorist Attack,” BBC News, September 16, 2010.

[35] Michael Leiter, “Nine Years After 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland,” U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, September 22, 2010.

[36]  Ibid.

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