Abstract: Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has changed. So too must the counterterrorism community’s approach to it. Beset by infighting, riddled with spies, decimated by drones, and instrumentalized by Yemen’s warring parties, the jihadi movement in the region has fragmented. The conventional labels of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State have started to lose meaning, and this necessitates a new typology of jihadi militants to account for splinter groups that have forged alliances that may seem contradictory. AQAP is degraded but not defeated, and conditions favor its resurgence. A ceasefire in the overall war will not prevent, and may even fuel, a comeback. The transnational threat persists, with a maritime attack one possible scenario.

The Arabian Peninsula was the place of origin of 17 of al-Qa`ida’s 19 9/11 hijackers. Two decades later, al-Qa`ida remains the Arabian Peninsula’s dominant jihadi group, having proven resilient to both the challenge posed by the Islamic State and the long and intense war on terror spearheaded by the United States. The group is significantly degraded and divided in this region, but it persists, with Yemen as its main base. There are several reasons for Yemen’s continuing suitability as a jihadi hub. These include the perennial problems of political instability, formidable topography, weak state control, endemic corruption, marginalized regions, growing poverty, and a youth explosion. More recently, a prolonged and ongoing war has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, displaced millions, fueled sectarianism, proliferated armed militias, introduced controversial foreign intervention, and sparked new cycles of revenge. All of this provides local conditions that are ripe for exploitation by al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Defining who or what constitutes AQAP is more challenging today than it was a decade ago. As Yemen’s internationalized civil war has fragmented, different AQAP splinters have emerged, some of them no more than mercenary gangs. The strongest common thread between them is no longer religious ideology, but rather links to organized crime and profiteering in Yemen’s thriving war economy. Traditional AQAP elements, who believe they are fighting jihad on the path of Allah against infidels, still exist. However, the considerable pressures they have faced from counterterrorism efforts, particularly from 2016 onward, have forced them to adapt. Decapitated by relentless drone strikes, they have become increasingly guided by political and financial rather than religious considerations. The need to survive allows pragmatism to overshadow ideology, at least temporarily. As a result, Yemen’s ‘holy warriors’ have increasingly turned into guns-for-hire, whether by genuine preference or merely as a survival strategy. Either way, it would be rash to equate this pragmatic development with deradicalization or capitulation. It should be viewed as a temporary shift, not a long-term transition.

Sunni extremists do not hold a monopoly on terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula. Pockets of Shi`a extremists also engage in terror tactics in parts of Bahrain,1 eastern Saudi Arabia,2 and, arguably, northern Yemen among radical elements of the Houthi insurgency, whose supremacist ideology has grown in tandem with its increasing military assistance from Iran and Hezbollah.3 However, the ‘terrorist’ label is more properly used to describe the tactics of small militant elements among wider Shi`a insurgencies than entire movements. This is not the case with Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State, for whom militant transnational jihad is both a tenet of faith and a way of life. It is on these Sunni jihadi groups that this article focuses.

There are significant challenges to researching jihad in Yemen today. Fake news abounds, few independent local media outlets remain, and many apparent citizen journalists are in reality paid and trained to support political agendas. As a result, the AQAP and Islamic State labels are instrumentalized to fit political narratives in ways that can be hard to spot in both mainstream and social media sources. These include massaging the facts around genuine events, adding extremist markers to opposition footage, placing old jihadi footage into new contemporary contexts, or simply false-flagging attacks to jihad groups to provide cover for political motives. It is also important to acknowledge that jihad groups too are learning and adapting. As their loyalties and paymasters change, so too must analysts rethink how to understand them.

This article begins with a rapid outline of AQAP’s evolution during the first decade and a half since 9/11, before zooming in on the past four years. It examines how the Islamic State in Yemen (ISY) rose, fell, was reinvented, then disappeared. It next explores AQAP’s fragmentation from 2017 onward, its rivalry with ISY, and the instrumentalization of both groups by parties to the Yemen conflict as part of a broader political power struggle. Next, it redefines AQAP, offering a new typology of militants, with the contradictory priorities and range of alliances this may bring. Questions are then raised about AQAP’s current and future leadership, before moving into a discussion of the continuing transnational threat posed by AQAP. Lastly, the article looks at how extremism in Saudi Arabia has evolved, and ends by offering some conclusions and a look ahead.

Rise and Fall, 2001-2016
Yemen was al-Qa`ida’s most active branch for most of the two decades following 9/11. Much has already been written about the group’s activities in the years leading up to the current Yemeni civil war, which became internationalized in 2015. The most important milestones in the group’s evolution during that period included: a Saudi crackdown on jihadis in the years immediately following 9/11 that pushed many to flee over the border into Yemen; an infamous 2006 jailbreak, in which 23 jihadis escaped from Sanaa’s maximum security prison to give the group a new lease of life; the 2009 merger of its Saudi and Yemeni branches to form AQAP; the instability generated by the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprising, which facilitated AQAP’s declaration of Islamic emirates in parts of Abyan and Shabwah in 2011-2012; the lightning rise of the Islamic State, which announced its Yemen province in 2014, forcing AQAP to reassess its own position; and the 2014 Houthi power grab, which precipitated the slide into war. This provided the perfect conditions for AQAP to resurge.

AQAP’s big break came in 2015 when Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen, heading a coalition of nine Sunni countries in an attempt to restore the government ousted by the Iran-backed Houthis. AQAP framed the political conflict in sectarian terms that chimed with its own narrative of global jihad and recruited fighters, exploiting southern fears of a northern takeover. It took advantage of the governance vacuum to stage another jailbreak, seize military hardware, rob the central bank, and establish a proto-state, which it ran out of the eastern port city of Mukalla. For an entire year, AQAP was able to exercise influence over vast territory and resources in the south of the peninsula. It implemented community development projects, distributed aid, held festivals, engaged in youth outreach, and took a deliberately relaxed approach to the implementation of sharia law.4 As Khalid Batarfi, then AQAP emir in Hadramawt and now its overall leader, pointed out at the time, “Contrary to what some people think, we are not just an armed organization or fighting group. We are a part of these Muslim populations, and we offer them the best we can in the developmental, societal and service sectors.”5 By the time AQAP was eventually ousted from Mukalla and its environs by special forces sent by the UAE and its western allies in 2016, it had put down strong roots. Hence, its ouster was a retreat, not a defeat. AQAP was to prove a persistent, long-term problem.

To the outside world, Islamic State in Yemen (ISY) has often seemed a greater threat than AQAP, owing to its slick propaganda, headline-grabbing attacks, and professionally produced videos. ISY did enjoy an initial wave of enthusiasm in Yemen and officially announced its Yemen province in late 2014. It attracted both new recruits, who were impressed by what they saw as its thrilling ascent in Syria and Iraq and were keen to be part of its success story, and AQAP defectors, fed up with waiting for their own caliphate to be declared. Ultimately, however, ISY was no match for AQAP’s deep roots and long experience.6 It never held territory, and its support quickly dwindled. Yemenis balked at its indiscriminate brutality, arrogant leadership style, poor understanding of local dynamics, lack of culturally attuned narratives, foreign leaders, and weak religious credentials.7 By late 2016, ISY was largely relegated to a rugged corner of al-Bayda’ in central Yemen. A year later, in late 2017, it was all but wiped out when the United States obliterated its two main training camps in airstrikes8 and, together with the Gulf Cooperation Council, slapped sanctions on its top leaders and froze their assets.9

ISY’s cultural clumsiness and savagery in fact worked to AQAP’s advantage, allowing the latter to position itself as ‘the good guy of jihad.’ During the heyday of its Mukalla ‘state,’ AQAP vowed not to bomb public places,10 paid blood money to tribes when it accidentally killed their kinfolk,11 took care to introduce sharia law gradually, ensured the optics looked ‘statesmanlike’ for the few public executions it did conduct, and apologized for past excesses. AQAP also tried to position itself favorably vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi-led coalition was dropping bombs in and around Sanaa, AQAP was fixing infrastructure and improving public services in and around Mukalla.a When this author interviewed Mukalla community leaders at the height of the AQAP state in late 2015, they grudgingly acknowledged that AQAP was dealing with long-standing local grievances. Ironically, they also complained of an influx of northerners seeking shelter in AQAP-controlled areas from both Saudi airstrikes and Houthi incursions.12 When the United Nations in 2016 briefly added Saudi Arabia to an annual blacklist of states and armed groups that violate children’s rights during conflict, for its killing of children in Yemen,13 AQAP, which was also on the list, was quick to exploit the moment by issuing a statement clarifying that it would not target the family homes of its enemies.14 b

Yemen (Rowan Technology)

Fragmentation and Infighting, 2017-2021
After losing its ‘state’ in 2016, AQAP was forced to revert to guerrilla tactics, which peaked in 2017 with over 270 operations, albeit mostly small scale and all domestic.15 An accompanying uptick in counterterrorism operations took its toll on the group as it struggled against not only new local forces recruited by the UAE across the south but also informers inside AQAP itself. A steady stream of drone strikes, including over 120 in 2017 alone,16 continued to pick off its leaders and proved it had a spy problem. AQAP responded by imposing a cell phone and internet ban17 and launching an extensive internal investigation, which it showcased in a series of feature-length videos entitled “Demolishing Espionage” (2018-2020). The extent of its spy problem became clear when AQAP decided in 2019 to offer amnesty and full anonymity for all spies and informers who came forward and confessed.18 As the challenges piled up, AQAP was forced to narrow its operational focus to two main areas: Abyan in the south, where it targeted the new UAE-backed pro-southern separatist forces, and al-Bayda’ in central Yemen, where it targeted the Houthis and so-called ISY.

From mid-2018 until 2020, AQAP became heavily distracted by an all-out war with a new incarnation of so-called ISY in al-Bayda’ that appeared to rise out of the ashes of the U.S. airstrikes on Yemen’s original ISY. The new ISY was maniacally focused on provoking AQAP into open conflict rather than battling Houthis. AQAP partisans complained of ISY driving through their checkpoints at high speed, setting up camp directly behind them, and slashing open their tents at night yelling “Apostates!”19 The final straw came when ISY abducted a group of AQAP fighters on their way back from the front against the Houthis. Months of tit-for-tat attacks ensued. Until early 2020, both ISY and AQAP focused almost exclusively on killing each other. There is some evidence to suggest that the new ISY in fact maintained close links to the Houthis, despite the nominal enmity between them.20 This supports the broader suspicion that various parts of both ISY and AQAP have been instrumentalized by regional rivals (or factions within them) and their domestic partners as part of a broader political power game.21

By early 2020, AQAP infighting, suspicion, and leadership issues had led to major schisms. AQAP’s footprint in al-Bayda’ shrank as some factions fell back to safe havens in Ma’rib while others moved south to join new battle fronts where government forces were clashing with southern separatist forces.22 c Most serious was the desertion of at least 18 AQAP militants, and likely many more, led by Mansur al-Hadrami, AQAP’s commander in Qayfa who was relieved of his post, and Abu ‘Umar al-Nahdi, AQAP’s former emir in Mukalla.d The rift began when Qasim al-Raymi was still overall leader but worsened under his controversial successor, Khalid Batarfi, who was appointed in February 2020 after al-Raymi was killed in a U.S. strike. The breakaway group doubted Batarfi’s judgment, and possibly even his loyalty, as ever more of their colleagues were executed on flimsy spying charges.23 The final straw came when Batarfi and his right-hand man, Sa’d Atif al-Awlaqi, ignoring requests for global al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to intervene, pressed ahead with the execution of the highly respected jihadi ideologue Abu Maryam al-‘Azdi on spying charges, which many both inside and outside AQAP consider ludicrous.24

Although initial information about the rift came from sources hostile to AQAP, it is clear that it is real and serious because AQAP decided to address it and justify its actions in an unprecedented 18-page statement, its longest ever.25 There are hints that the rift reflects factions that are pro- and anti-Islah,26 Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood that is aligned with the Hadi government and has its own militias. The infighting, rivalries and disobedience are also alluded to throughout a 2021 lecture series by AQAP’s top judge, Abu Bishr Muhammad Daramah, but only ever in general terms.27 It is impossible to unravel the precise loyalties at play. What is certain is that AQAP has fragmented and that the way in which analysts approach and define it must change accordingly.

Defining AQAP
The AQAP label has started to lose meaning, owing not only to the group’s fragmentation but also to the label’s fast and loose adoption both in the media and on the ground. Broadly speaking, as this author has previously described,28 so-called AQAP militants now fall into one of six categories: spurious, fake, former, pragmatic, committed, and active.

Spurious AQAP refers to those wrongly assumed to be jihadis on the basis of family, tribal, or friendship ties,29 or falsely denounced as jihadis by opponents or rivals. Fake AQAP refers to mercenaries who claim false AQAP links to inflate their price30 or ordinary military forces whose acts are deliberately false-flagged to AQAP to cover for political motives. Former AQAP are militants who have genuinely lost interest in jihad in favor of fighting for a political cause or a more lucrative paycheck. Pragmatic AQAP refers to militants who have adapted to prevailing conditions and genuinely fight under a new banner, but in whom jihadi ideology may still lie dormant. Committed AQAP are militants who claim to fight under a new banner but are merely suppressing their jihadi identity to bide their time for a comeback. Finally, active AQAP are those jihadis who continue to operate as themselves but who may at times forge alliances of convenience with other conflict parties. There may be splinters even within this active AQAP category. It is likely that only the operations of this latter group (or particular splinters within it) are currently claimed by AQAP’s official media outlet, known as Al-Malahim.

This typology of so-called AQAP militants helps to explain the mismatch between the low number of operational claims published on AQAP’s official Malahim wire relative to the higher number claimed by local media outlets, informal AQAP groups on platforms like Telegram, and al-Qa`ida-linked media organizations like Thabat or al-Khayr. This is particularly true for operations in Yemen’s south. While it is tempting to attribute the mismatch to AQAP’s own poor communications, in fact its formal wire is both prolific, pumping out regular video footage of talking heads. It is therefore more likely that AQAP deliberately ignores some operations while acknowledging others, depending on whether or not it deems the perpetrators to be bona fide AQAP. It is also worth noting that while AQAP is quick to react to relevant events of international consequence,e it can be surprisingly slow to pick up on events on the ground at a local level. Even for its own operations, the time lag between execution and publication of a claim can be several days, particularly in the south, and the details furnished tend to be sparse. This may imply that AQAP, or a faction of it, is no longer leading, but rather following, with another warring party now calling the shots.

There are different reasons for why local media and informal al-Qa`ida fan media over-attribute attacks to AQAP. First, those local media organizations still remaining in the south tend to be partisan and may have political motives for labeling all attacks as terrorism. Second, it is genuinely challenging to distinguish between jihadi militancy and political militancy, given the considerable overlap in their objectives.f Third, some AQAP splinters have likely blended with the various Saudi-backed Islahi militias and UAE-backed salafi militias.31 Indeed, it is possible that some of the fighters themselves are unsure precisely whose grand design they are part of, and they may not even care, as long as they are fighting their immediate enemies and earning a wage.

Different AQAP splinters may forge different alliances at different times. These ebb and flow according to circumstance, such that seemingly contradictory partnerships can actually become logical. It is entirely possible, for example, that parts of AQAP might collaborate with certain Houthi factions when circumstances dictate, despite the group having built its public reputation on fighting the Houthis whom it casts as Shi`a infidels, stressing at times their collaboration with Iran and at others with the United States. There is historical precedent on both sides for such pragmatism.g

Al-Qa`ida’s relationship with the Houthis stretches back to the 1990s. The transcript of a 2010 interrogation with Ibrahim al-Banna, who is now AQAP’s security chief, is revealing.h Al-Banna, a leading militant in Egypt’s Islamic Jihad in the 1980s, moved to Yemen in the early 1990s to build its militant jihad network there. Al-Banna recounted, “We established a good network of relations with the sheikhs of bedouin tribes, especially the Houthis. We used to sell them weapons and seek their help in arranging shelter for members of the group [Egyptian Islamic Jihad] and then the organization [al-Qa`ida], until recently.”32 i He added that the Houthis helped smuggle jihadi operatives into Saudi Arabia. Al-Banna also revealed that when Nasir al-Wuhayshi became leader of al-Qa`ida in Yemen following the 2006 jailbreak, Muhammad ‘Umayr al-Awlaqi (who, according to al-Banna, preceded al-Wuhayshi as leader, a position that was not previously clear) was tasked with bolstering al-Qa`ida’s relationships with the Houthis. Significantly, however, al-Banna specifically rejected the suggestion of any operational collaboration between al-Qa`ida and the Houthis; the relationship is cast as one of purely pragmatic cooperation.

Lines of communication between the Houthis and AQAP clearly still exist because they have succeeded in conducting recent prisoner swaps.j This relationship may have proven useful in summer 2020 when the Houthis swept through al-Bayda’ in a much-publicized counterterrorism operation. The operation was doubtless designed by the Houthis in part to improve their negotiating position ahead of anticipated peace talks by presenting themselves as a credible counterterrorism partner while also providing cover for their expansionist ambitions. On the surface, the 2020 Houthi operation looked successful. Both ISY and AQAP were duly impacted. ISY vanished, though this was likely through a combination of being conspicuously killed and surreptitiously dismantled.k AQAP, by contrast, appeared simply to melt away. Some local sources reported that AQAP had reached an agreement with the Houthis to retreat.33 It would certainly be in Houthi interests to grant AQAP safe passage south where they could focus on driving a wedge between Saudi-backed and UAE-backed sides of the anti-Houthi coalition. Assuming al-Banna remains at large, as AQAP’s security chief with Houthi relationships spanning nearly three decades, he would be in a good position to strike the deals necessary to ensure AQAP’s survival.

In the south, AQAP appears focused on targeting UAE-backed separatist forces. There are four main reasons for this. First, AQAP regards the separatists as godless socialists seeking to restore the former state of South Yemen, which was the Arab world’s first and only Marxist state prior to Yemen’s unification in 1990. Second, AQAP does not recognize man-made borders inside the umma. Third, it was southern separatist forces, rather than government forces, that pursued a relentless campaign to drive AQAP out of its southern strongholds after it was ousted from Mukalla in 2016. Fourth, the separatist forces are backed by the UAE, which AQAP condemns for pursuing its own commercial interests in south Yemen,34 hosting the Pope,35 and signing the Abraham Accords with Israel.36 Hence, AQAP has issued several statements specifically apostatizing southern separatist forces.37

It is likely that AQAP, weakened and fragmented, is making common cause with more mainstream militias who share its animosity toward southern separatists. However, it is wise to be wary of jumping to obvious conclusions. There are numerous factions within all of the main warring parties, both inside and outside Yemen, who would be pleased to act as spoilers in the south, stall peace, perpetuate the war economy, stoke tensions in the coalition, and see the 2019 Riyadh Agreement collapse.l

AQAP has a leadership problem. Khaled Batarfi is nominally in charge, but different splinters have gone their own ways and forged their own alliances. This is unsurprising, given the current pressures. Watching colleagues being picked off by drone strikes at an alarming rate fuels suspicions, which are left to fester and grow, owing to the challenges of communicating safely. Although new leaders can always be found to fill the shoes of colleagues killed in drone strikes, the pool of experienced and high-caliber candidates has shrunk dramatically. There are few remaining veterans of the Afghan jihad, nor is it any longer practically possible for Yemen’s jihadis to run training camps to provide military expertise, spiritual guidance, and religious grounding. One AQAP sheikh bitterly complained that young jihadis are now “more hooked on nashids (anthems) than on the Qur’an.”38

The leadership problem is clearly visible in AQAP’s recent media output. In mid-May 2020, AQAP’s official Malahim media wire fell silent following a U.S. strike that killed ‘Abd Allah al-Maliki, the Pensacola shooter’s go-between and likely also AQAP’s main media operative running Malahim under the pseudonym ‘Abd Allah al-Mujahid.m When the wire eventually sprang back to life in earnest in late August 2020n (the same time that the Houthis took over AQAP enclaves in al-Bayda’), the content was markedly different. The ever-present phrase “Allah be praised,” which had previously ended all operational claims, was inexplicably dropped during the next six months. Even stranger was that “new” videos started to flood onto the wire in 2021. Although most of the footage was previously unseen, it tended to favor old monologues, many of them by leaders who were already dead, packaged into new episodes of long-dormant lecture series.o It is as though someone stumbled upon a hard drive archive of AQAP outtakes from the past decade, and was busily splicing them together into “new” products. This had the superficial effect of making AQAP seem like an independent and growing concern, whereas in reality it betrays either desperation or external interference.

There is no indication in AQAP’s official media output of any rising stars moving up the leadership ranks, although this may be different in various splinter groups. There are four senior AQAP leaders who still remain on the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice list with multi-million-dollar bounties on their heads: Khalid Batarfi, Sa’d Atif al-Awlaqi [Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki], Ibrahim al-Qusi, and Ibrahim al-Banna. Batarfi, AQAP’s overall leader, was reportedly captured in a raid in the eastern al-Mahra governorate in October 2020.39 However, his subsequent appearance in the video “America and the Painful Seizure,” in which he gloated over the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building in January 2021, demonstrates either that he was not captured or that his current captors are collaborators. Nevertheless, as both a hunted man and a controversial leadership figure, Batarfi’s days are likely numbered.

It is unclear if any of his three colleagues on the State Department’s rewards list has the necessary qualities to succeed him. On the surface, al-Awlaqi appears the obvious successor, if still alive. Significantly, he is Yemeni (al-Qusi is Sudanese and al-Banna is Egyptian), and he has a broad network, including in tribal areas, not just in the south where his al-Awlaqi kinship ties have broad reach, but in northern Yemen as well. He was AQAP’s emir in Shabwah and is thought to have become AQAP’s overall second-in-command after al-Raymi’s death. However, he is a military man and lacks religious credentials. He is the only one of the four leadership figures who is not introduced as “sheikh” in AQAP media. There is also uncertainty over whether he is still alive. A U.N. report claimed he was killed in the 2020 Mahra raid.40 Although AQAP issued a statement categorically denying both Batarfi’s capture and al-Awlaqi’s death,41 al-Awlaqi has not appeared in any AQAP media since, and a renewed information drive by the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program in mid-2021 focused only on Batarfi, al-Qusi, and al-Banna.42 Al-Awlaqi was inexplicably ignored.

Of the remaining two figures on the State Department list, Ibrahim al-Banna may be the one to watch. Although Ibrahim al-Qusi has a higher media profile, his religious credentials, network, and experience in Yemen are inferior to those of al-Banna. Al-Banna holds the key AQAP position of Chief of Security and was trusted to head the highly sensitive investigation into internal spies.43 He is a formidable figure for four main reasons. First, he has a jihadi pedigree spanning four decades beginning with Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1980s, during which he worked directly alongside some of al-Qa`ida’s most eminent leaders, including ‘Abd al-Mun’im al-Badawi (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir),44 who took over from Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi as leader of al-Qa`ida in Iraq, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qa`ida globally. Al-Banna’s resounding praise of the 9/11 attacks and vow to continue targeting the United States appeared in English in Inspire magazine.45 Second, he has deep roots in Yemen, having arrived there nearly three decades ago in the early 1990s when he focused on nurturing local relationships, including among the Houthis.46 Third, he has long experience building networks, supervising, and training in the jihad movement.47 Fourth, he has strong religious credentials, having graduated from Cairo’s highly prestigious Al-Azhar University.48

Other key AQAP figures who are not on the State Department rewards list are: ‘Ammar al-San’ani, Rayyan al-Hadrami, ‘Abd Allah al-Hadrami, and Abu ‘Usama al-‘Awlaqi, all of whom were selected as mediators to try to heal the current rifts in AQAP, with the latter two holding appointments as judges;49 Hamad al-Tamimi, an ideologue who has written prolifically on jihadi doctrine and was picked to announce the leadership succession from al-Raymi to Batarfi in February 2020; and Abu Bishr Muhammad Daramah, AQAP’s top judge, who recovered from a 2018 drone strike thought to have killed him, although he was reportedly captured by government forces in Ma’rib in January 2021.50 There are also leading figures in breakaway factions such as Abu Dawuud al-Say’ari, Mansur al-Hadrami, and Abu ‘Umar al-Nahdi.

A militant suspected of being a member of al-Qa`ida mans a checkpoint in Azzan in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa on March 31, 2012. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Transnational Threat
AQAP has been significantly degraded, but its ambition to strike the United States and its allies remains. Even the domestic tangle of Yemen’s current conflicts has been spun to fit its transnational ambitions. At first sight, AQAP’s view of the current war landscape appears highly contradictory. It accuses the United States of being in cahoots with the Iran-backed Houthis fighting the Saudi-led coalition. At the same time, it accuses the Saudi-led coalition of being agents of the United States. The only way for AQAP to square this awkward circle is by subsuming all enemies—Sunni or Shi`a, Israeli or Arab, Western or Eastern—into an over-arching Zionist-Crusader plot against true Islam, led by Israel’s primary backer, the United States.

AQAP-linked attacks in the West are well-known. These range from those inspired by its English-language Inspire magazine and the online sermons of Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi (who was killed by a U.S. strike in 2011), such as the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, to thwarted plots like the printer cartridge bombs intercepted on cargo planes in 2010, to operatives trained directly by AQAP, such as the ‘underwear bomber’ who attempted to blow up an airliner over Detroit in 2009 and one of the perpetrators of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

It is unlikely that AQAP is currently in a position to exercise direct command and control over attacks in the West. But it can certainly still inspire, and possibly even provide some direction. The United States remains the ultimate target. The Pensacola Naval Base shooting in December 2019 is a stark reminder that the threat persists. The Saudi shooter was hosted by the United States as part of a joint Saudi-U.S. military training program, despite having been radicalized already by 2015 and then, while in the United States, maintaining direct contact with AQAP.51 AQAP made much of the attack in a gloating video message from its former leader Qasim al-Raymi, in which he praised the patient and careful planning,52 although in reality, the attack was relatively unsophisticated. Al-Raymi himself was killed in a U.S. strike days before the release of his triumphal video, and the shooter’s go-between, ‘Abd Allah al-Maliki, was killed just three months later in a further U.S. strike in Yemen.53

The threats and warnings to the United States and its allies in AQAP media persist. The last issue of Inspire magazine was devoted to encouraging train derailment operations and included a map of the U.S. rail network.54 p Although Inspire magazine fell dormant from 2017, new Inspire-branded products have appeared and AQAP has started consistently producing in-house translations into English and sometimes also French of those media products aimed at a broader international audience. A lengthy Inspire-branded article titled “Who is the Victor?” was released to celebrate the 2020 anniversary of 9/11. It pulled together unfavorable data on the U.S. military, economy, business, and health sectors, which it claimed proved the attacks were victorious. The article took a final swipe at the United States by presenting its struggle with COVID-19 as a punishment from Allah.55

AQAP’s preoccupation with the United States has flourished through 2021, despite or perhaps partly to compensate for its own domestic troubles. AQAP resurrected its series of Inspire Guides, urging Muslims to attack Americans anywhere, but preferably on American soil, pointing to slack U.S. gun laws as a distinct advantage.56 Half of AQAP’s Inspire Guides to date have been dedicated to analyzing attacks on U.S. soil they present as being carried out by jihadis: the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, the mall stabbing in Minnesota,q and the failed attacks carried out by the “Chelsea” bomber in New York and New Jersey in September 2016, and the 2021 Boulder, Colorado supermarket shooting.r AQAP’s intention is to encourage future operations and improve their lethality.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol in early 2021 provided an ideal opportunity for AQAP to release a bombastic video message attributing the United States’ political turmoil, civil strife, racial tensions, and COVID fatalities to Allah’s divine intervention.57 The optics were designed for maximum insult. Images of the 9/11 attacks decorated the backdrop, and the message was delivered by none other than AQAP leader Batarfi himself, who had been confirmed as captured in a U.N. Security Council report released just seven days earlier.58 AQAP also pinned ultimate blame for the May 2021 clashes between Israel and Palestine on the United States, “the chief of unbelief, without whose support and protection the Jews would never have dared [to commit] such atrocities.”59

France, too, has resurfaced as a preferred target over the past year. In 2020, AQAP capitalized on both the French government’s crackdown on Islamist ‘separatism’ and the decision by Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris to republish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. It released various trilingual statements in Arabic, English, and French calling for revenge attacks and the “complete elimination” of France,60 the economic boycott of French goods,61 and more operations against the French in Mali.62 AQAP told Muslims it was time to choose sides between the Prophet and the French state,63 in an apparent echo of U.S. President George W. Bush’s speech shortly after 9/11 when he told the world “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”64 Meanwhile, AQAP’s partisan wire, Kifah Media, continues to churn out French translations of inspirational material and spiritual guidance from the AQAP archive. This material clearly has the potential to fuel new jihad battlefronts that have opened in French-speaking Africa, where the French military has been heavily engaged, as well as to inspire attacks in France itself, where up to nine percent of the population is Muslim.65

Israel, of course, remains a perennial enemy for the terrorist group. Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque looms large as the favorite backdrop for AQAP talking heads, even in videos that do not deal with Israel or Palestine directly, and every AQAP video ends on a landing page bearing the slogan/threat “O Aqsa, we are coming.” This slogan was also used as the title for a bold, three-day festival that AQAP held in Mukalla to celebrate its flourishing proto-state in early 2016. At times, the festival seemed more like a rock concert, with nashids (anthems) blaring out over loudspeakers while fighters performed synchronized combat moves on stage to cheering crowds under neon lights. AQAP leaders delivered speeches remotely over giant open-air screens, volunteers handed out proselytizing leaflets, and competitions were organized for the kids with fabulous prizes.66 Locals who likely never concerned themselves much beyond their own communities were suddenly encouraged to see their domestic woes as part of a Zionist-Crusader conspiracy.

Recent events have sparked furious reactions by AQAP against Israel and its allies. In a video message following the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, Batarfi told Muslims it was their “duty to kill every Jew by driving over him, stabbing him, using a weapon, or setting fire to their houses.”67 Other AQAP messages have dealt with the normalization of relations with Israel,68 the alleged establishment of an Israeli-UAE spy base on Socotra Island,69 and the eruption of hostilities between Israel and Palestine in 2021.70

Saudi Arabia
Aside from Yemen, the only other state on the Arabian Peninsula to suffer a persistent threat from Sunni Islamist extremism is Saudi Arabia. There are a number of factors behind this, including the kingdom’s position as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, its historical pact empowering the purist Wahhabi religious establishment, its promotion of sectarian narratives to combat Iranian influence and justify the repression of Shi`a activism in its restive eastern province, its vast financial deals with Western companies, and its military cooperation with the U.S. and other Western governments. The extremist threat is leveled in two directions: outward-facing, with the export of Saudi extremists to jihad theaters outside the kingdom; and inward-facing, when blowback generates plots inside the kingdom itself.

The outward-facing threat has a strong history, with Saudi extremists generally opting to wage jihad abroad rather than at home for both ideological and practical reasons. Even those Saudi Islamist scholars who have advocated militant jihad as a means to effect political change abroad have tended to support the political status quo at home. Saudi foreign fighters started traveling to Afghanistan in the 1980s, then also to fronts in Bosnia, Yemen, and Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s. From 2010, thousands of Saudis traveled to join the growing Islamic State enterprise in Iraq and especially in Syria. Official Saudi sources estimate that in 2013 and 2014 alone, over 2,000 Saudis traveled to Syria.71 Analysis of leaked Islamic State documents detailing early cohorts of fighters seeking to join the group in Syria reveals how the Islamic State tailored its recruitment narratives to suit its Saudi audience.72 It plugged into existing sectarian faultlines and the historical enmity between Saudi and the Iran-backed Assad regime. Indeed, Syria was the only ‘Arab Spring’ country where Saudi Arabia was actually in favor of toppling the regime.

The internal threat from militant Islamist extremists is also material.73 During the first decade following 9/11, the greatest challenge came from al-Qa`ida, whose activities peaked between 2003 and 2006, after which a security crackdown drove many militants across the border into Yemen.74 During the second decade after 9/11, it was the Islamic State that posed the greater threat as its early recruitment drive for Saudis to join its nascent state came back to bite the kingdom. In November 2014, the Islamic State announced the establishment of three provinces in Saudi Arabia. Within three years, it had carried out over 30 attacks.75

Islamic State-linked operatives in Saudi Arabia have targeted both military and religious establishments, the latter focused mainly on the Shi`a community, which they consider to be heretics—a view that has been fueled by years of state-sponsored sectarian rhetoric against the Shi`a.76 Several high-profile security operations have helped mitigate the threat, although the very broad Saudi definition of terrorism makes the true extent of the extremist problem hard to discern.77 In July 2016, Saudi Arabia arrested 19 Islamic State-linked jihadis after a spate of attacks inside the kingdom, including suicide bombings at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina and the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. Seven of those arrested were Saudi nationals.78 Just two months later, the Saudis dismantled three further terror cells with links to the Islamic State. This time, all but three of the 17 militants captured were Saudi nationals. The security operation reportedly succeeded in thwarting four further attacks on military and religious targets, including inside Riyadh.79 The recovery of a significant cache of explosives and suicide vests suggested the possibility of a wider network with broader ambitions and indeed, by March 2021, at least 45 further Islamic State-linked operatives had been uncovered.s

Over time, however, it is likely that al-Qa`ida, not the Islamic State, will prove the more persistent challenge. Its roots run deep, and it continues to voice ambitions to attack Saudi Arabia, although it differs from the Islamic State in that it focuses on the regime and its allies, not the Shi`a community. As the Islamic State started to struggle in its heartlands of Syria and Iraq, al-Qa`ida issued a series of six documentary-style videos designed to refocus jihadi attention on al-Qa`ida’s mission to ‘liberate’ Saudi Arabia. Narrated by Usama bin Ladin’s son, Hamza, “Dominion of the Best Ummah” (2016-18) traced the kingdom’s modern history under what it depicted to be the treacherous, corrupt, profligate, and profane House of Saud.

The series looked to be an attempt to bolster Hamza’s leadership credentials within al-Qa`ida and present him as a rallying figure to inspire a new generation of jihadis in Saudi Arabia, where al-Qa`ida’s elderly and uncharismatic Egyptian leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has struggled. Episode Two even bestowed on Hamza the title of “sheikh,” despite the fact that he was still in his 20s and lacked any religious qualifications. This may have provoked some pushback in the extremist hierarchy as the rest of the series reverted to calling him “brother.” In the final episode (March 2018), Hamza called on Saudis to train with AQAP in Yemen in order to prepare for their own revolution in Saudi Arabia. He urged Saudis to rise up to defend their land from Saudi corruption, American occupation, and Iranian encroachment. But in addition to these well-rehearsed religious, political, and moral imperatives for revolution, he raised a further explosive economic incentive: wealth redistribution.80

In September 2019, the United States confirmed that it had killed Hamza bin Ladin but did not specify when. Although Hamza was not yet a pivotal religious or military leader inside al-Qa`ida, his loss is significant. He had the potential to become a lightning rod for young militants, owing to his revered lineage, his desire to take forward his father’s legacy, and his growing skills as a speaker and poet.

Al-Qa`ida continues to lash out at Saudi Arabia, and its outrage stems almost exclusively from the close Saudi relationship with the United States. Its al-Nafir occasional bulletin (2015-ongoing) has devoted several issues to criticizing the ruling House of Saud and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman specifically. They are condemned for supposedly collaborating with the CIA,81 spending colossal amounts on U.S. deals and investments,82 cracking down on religious scholars,83 forming an Islamic counterterrorism alliance that it calls “a new Crusader alliance in Saudi robes,”84 failing in the Yemen war despite huge spending on U.S. military hardware,85 and Americanizing society through social reforms, particularly new freedoms for women.86

It is this latter controversy, the introduction of liberalizing social reforms while also eroding the powers of the religious establishment, that has generated the loudest response from al-Qa`ida. Bin Salman’s reforms have granted women limited liberties by modifying rules on veiling, male guardianship, employment, and driving, as well as opening up the entertainment sector by relaxing rules on live music, cinemas, and the mingling of men and women. In tandem, the regime has locked up radical clerics, reined in the religious police, purged school textbooks of incendiary material,87 and, most recently, begun introducing awareness units in universities to guard against extremism.88 t

Al-Qa`ida has sought to capitalize on the anger and alarm these changes have generated among religious conservatives. In late 2018, its global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video message called “The Zionists of the Peninsula” in which he vehemently condemned Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment of clerics, social liberalization, and increasingly cozy relationship with Israel as the latest crimes in a long history of Saudi treachery. He urged Muslims in Arabia to rise up.89 Concern over U.S. influence on education reforms was raised in a slick production entitled “The Unpardonable Crime,” which featured former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlining U.S. involvement in plans to replace Saudi school textbooks and train imams.90 These various anti-Saudi drives by al-Qa`ida represent its attempt to mop up salafi jihadi support and reinsert itself in the Saudi debate as the Islamic State flounders.91

AQAP adopted a generally light touch toward Saudi Arabia during the early years of the Yemen war as both fought the mutual Houthi enemy. After AQAP’s ouster from Mukalla in 2016, its stance toward the coalition became more aggressive, but its ire was directed mainly at the UAE and the local forces it was recruiting across Yemen’s south, rather than at Saudi Arabia and Yemeni government forces under commander-in-chief Ali Muhsin. From 2017, however, with President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince’s liberalizing reforms, AQAP’s attitude toward the Saudi regime hardened.

AQAP warned of the slippery slope of the Crown Prince’s Westernizing agenda, although its choice of gripes was at times bizarre. It worried that the English and French languages would eclipse Arabic and hence impair knowledge of the Qur’an and Islamic history. AQAP also condemned Saudi women’s freedom to play sports, then spent considerable airtime angrily describing Saudi women’s great achievements, from participating in the Rio Olympics to conquering Everest, and from boxing to diving.92

Of particular concern to AQAP is Saudi Arabia’s increasing control over education because it recognizes that influencing young hearts and minds is crucial to al-Qa`ida’s own longevity and sustainability. It issued a joint statement with al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in September 2017 titled “Warning of Doom on Saudi Rulers.”93 The jihadis slammed Saudi Arabia for supposedly allowing the United States not only to plunder Muslim resources but also to influence the reform agenda and hence brainwash the next generation against Islam. They were particularly concerned by the arrests of eminent religious scholars and plans to overhaul school textbooks. As Khalid Batarfi, now AQAP’s overall leader, acknowledged in a rare 2018 interview: “There is no successful jihadi movement without a clear role for religious scholars at its center.”94

But AQAP’s deepest ire was sparked by the infiltration of their networks by spies recruited, they believed, by Saudi intelligence. AQAP laid out in some detail the results of its spy investigation in the documentary video series “Demolishing Espionage” (2018-2020). It alleged Saudi Arabia’s preferred recruitment method to be blackmail and denounced in particular what it claimed was the exploitation of children95 and what it alleged was the use of health professionals to drug and then video the rape of AQAP members’ wives and daughters during medical check-ups to use as leverage over them.96

Conclusion and Outlook
During the two decades since 9/11, militant jihad in the Arabian Peninsula has been heavily concentrated in Yemen, despite an initial flare up inside Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s and occasional sporadic attacks since. There are several reasons why Saudi Arabia has managed its threat better than Yemen. Unlike Yemen, Saudi Arabia benefits from civil stability, an integrated state, and strong governance, all underpinned by its oil wealth. As such, it has been able to mitigate its terrorist problem through a combination of sophisticated intelligence systems, robust security measures, repression, and well-funded terrorist rehabilitation programs. Nevertheless, despite the oft-quoted failure of jihad in Saudi Arabia,97 it is important to remain vigilant, particularly as Saudi Arabia faces a youth surge98 coupled with unemployment and economic challenges generated by an unstable oil price, fallout from the pandemic, and a crippling war in Yemen.

Yemen will very likely remain the locus of terrorist activity in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP has been severely degraded since the heyday of its proto-state in Mukalla in 2015-2016. It has been decimated by drone strikes, infiltrated by spies, and splintered by infighting. But AQAP is far from dead. It has been buoyed by the Taliban’s lightning takeover of Afghanistan, and may well enjoy friendly ties to Taliban elements given that AQAP’s current leader Khalid Batarfi trained and fought alongside them in Afghanistan before arriving in Yemen in 2002.99 Following the fall of Kabul in August 2021, AQAP released a euphoric statement congratulating the Taliban on their victory over the United States and NATO.100 AQAP’s stated takeaways were that steadfast jihad is the best route to achieving one’s goals, that democracy is no more than a fleeting mirage, and that a new era of Islamic rule is dawning, with broader jihadi victories to follow.101 On a domestic level, AQAP’s legacy of local partnerships, smuggling networks, and youth outreach endures despite its loss of territory. AQAP’s continuing ability to garner support and enter practical alliances is helped by the government’s ongoing failure to address local grievances, by the anger and misery generated by the persistent war, and most seriously perhaps, by regional powers’ exploitation of local conflict faultlines as they vie for influence on the ground.

However, AQAP is changing. Counterterrorism pressures and the shifting war landscape have resulted in AQAP splintering, blending, and (re)aligning in ways that now make the group harder to define. Six categories of AQAP militants were identified above: spurious, fake, former, pragmatic, committed, and active. Yet the precise alliances, drivers, and paymasters behind the various splinters remain opaque. What is certain is that extremist groups are being instrumentalized by other warring parties to further their agendas in Yemen. This may occur for a range of different reasons, depending on the actor. These include to justify expansionist advances, to cover for politically motivated attacks, to disrupt peace efforts, to strengthen organized crime networks, to keep the United States engaged, and to sow discord in the Saudi-led coalition. The co-option of extremist groups should not be viewed as a solution or dilution of the extremist problem. For a fragmented and weak AQAP, it may be a short-term survival mechanism and could serve to perpetuate the group.

AQAP’s ultimate goals have not changed, but they appear broader. These are the establishment of a borderless Islamic nation (umma) ruled by sharia law; justice for Palestine and other oppressed Muslims, from France to Myanmar; and an end not just to the U.S. military presence but to all meddling by ‘unbelievers’ and their alleged agent Arab regimes in the affairs of Muslim lands. Acts of terror are no longer pitched primarily as a means to an end, with the emphasis on creating the necessary leverage to achieve a goal. They are increasingly becoming an end in themselves, with the emphasis on revenge and humiliation. The strongest focus currently is on the United States, Israel, France, and the regimes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

A headline-grabbing international attack remains a potent ambition, particularly as AQAP tries to restore its reputation and unity after the degrading challenges of the past three years. In 2021, it revived its Inspire-branded jihad guide, and it continues to direct explicit threats at the West. Yet despite AQAP’s clear involvement in the 2019 Pensacola shooting and its attempts to insert itself in recent Muslim blowback against France for supposedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad, it has become increasingly unfeasible for AQAP to launch attacks outside Yemen, and there are few remaining international targets inside Yemen. There is, however, a steady stream of international maritime traffic that passes along Yemen’s considerable coastline.

A maritime attack remains a real possibility for several reasons. First, maritime traffic represents perhaps the only international target left within practical reach as Yemen’s almost 1,200-mile coastline is notoriously difficult to police. Second, AQAP has valuable experience in this domain, having launched maritime attacks against USS The Sullivans and USS Cole, both in 2000, and the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. It has learned from its failures (the Sullivans attack skiff sank) and its successes (the Cole attack skiff killed 17 sailors and injured around 40). Third, there are clear signs that a maritime attack remains an aspiration. In August 2020, an AQAP bard released a new poem and nashid (anthem) praising the Cole attack and vowing fresh attacks under Batarfi’s leadership.102 AQAP is fully aware of the benefits such an attack would bring. These were laid out in considerable detail by al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent in a long article that ends with a photo of an aircraft carrier and its support ships captioned “We will be back soon, insha’Allah [sic.]”.103 A maritime attack would generate worldwide media attention, disrupt international shipping, expose Western vulnerability, raise insurance premiums, spike the oil price, and create economic volatility. Fourth, these are outcomes that would also suit some other parties to the Yemen conflict, in case partnerships are required to facilitate an operation. The year 2020 saw at least four unexplained instances of small skiffs making aggressive approaches or attempted attacks on ships off the south coast of Yemen.u While the Houthis have been responsible for several maritime attacks, these tend to have been unmanned and confined to the Red Sea. Attacks launched from Yemen’s south coast, from Mahra in the east to Aden in the west, cannot easily be attributed to the Houthis, at least not without local partners.v

The outlook is bleak, whether or not a ceasefire is reached in the overall war. A 2021 briefing to the United Nations Security Council by the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen painted a rosy vision of the day after a ceasefire: guns fall silent, roadblocks disappear, and people return to work.104 However, it is unclear how representative the warring parties are of people on the ground, or how in control they are of their local forces. Batarfi has already spoken out against any U.N.-brokered peace, telling Yemenis “to reject and abort any plots hatched in the name of peace or under the guise of the UN, the Security Council and other organizations.”105 In reality, there will be many who feel excluded, who have scores to settle, little experience beyond fighting, no prospects, and no life to go back to. Hence, even peace represents an opportunity for al-Qa`ida.

Ultimately, countering terrorism in Yemen is best achieved by removing the drivers not only behind people joining the movement, but behind desperate local communities tolerating it. This will require a strong understanding of local dynamics, including power struggles, marginalization, patronage structures, the informal economy, negative incentives, exclusion, corruption, and under-development. These imperatives accord with the results of a broader study across the Middle East conducted by RAND, which concluded that the United States’ own counterterrorism interests would be better served by focusing more on development, governance, and investment, and less on military solutions.106 This may come with some short-term risks, but it would lead to better long-term results. Otherwise, Yemen has all the ingredients for AQAP to rise again: a fragmenting state, poor governance, marginalized regions, the proliferation of armed groups, a collapsing economy, a generation of poorly educated youth, corrupt elites, and an angry and impoverished society polarized by war.     CTC

Elisabeth Kendall is senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University’s Pembroke College. She is best known for her work on how jihadi militants exploit local cultures, particularly Arabic poetry. She spends significant time in the field, especially in Yemen. Previously, she was Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, a UK government sponsored initiative. Twitter: @Dr_E_Kendall

© 2021 Elisabeth Kendall

Substantive Notes
[a] Fifty-six percent of tweets from AQAP’s governance feed were about community development projects. Elisabeth Kendall, “How can al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula be defeated?” Washington Post, May 3, 2016.

[b] This overrode an earlier statement that had deemed enemy homes legitimate targets.

[c] Although it can be challenging to distinguish between the various militias opposing STC power in the south, it is likely that some are aligned with AQAP elements. The STC is Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council.

[d] The rift was first exposed by Islamic State-linked al-Taqwa media, “al-I’tizal al-Kabir li-Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi al-Yaman,” February 6, 2020. It is known that the rift occurred because AQAP later tried to give its side of the story.

[e] AQAP’s formal wire issued statements on clashes in east Jerusalem (May 2021) and the death of Yemen’s former Grand Mufti (July 2021) within a day of these events occurring.

[f] Even al-Qa`ida-linked Thabat Media hedges its bets by attributing some operations in Yemen simply to “mujahidun” and others to “Ansar al-Sharia mujahidun” (i.e., specifically AQAP).

[g] The most striking example of Houthi pragmatism is the unlikely alliance forged in 2014 between the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had spent much of the previous decade engaged in six rounds of war against them. AQAP also collaborated with the Saleh government when it suited. See Elisabeth Kendall, “Jihadi Militancy and Houthi Insurgency in Yemen,” in Michael A. Sheehan, Erich Marquardt, and Liam Collins eds., Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations (Oxfordshire, U.K.: Routledge, 2021), pp. 83-94.

[h] AQAP bills Ibrahim al-Banna as “Head of Security” in its video series “Tahdim al-Jasusiyya,” 2018-2020.

[i] One analyst at the time advised caution regarding the veracity of al-Banna’s transcript, pointing out that it suited the Yemeni government to frame the Houthis as al-Qa`ida collaborators. See Hassan Abbas, “Former AQAP Intelligence Chief describes Egyptian role in al-Qa’ida,” Terrorism Monitor 8:43 (2010). However, the categorical denial of any military collaboration lends authenticity to the transcript.

[j] Some of the Houthi-AQAP prisoner swaps have even been acknowledged by al-Qa`ida-linked media (e.g., al-Malahim Media Photoset, September 14, 2019; Thabat Media announcement, January 29, 2021).

[k] Houthi war propaganda wires posted dozens of photos of alleged ISY corpses. Many were the same scenes taken from different angles, so the actual number of different corpses was low. For the complex relationship between the Houthis and the group calling itself ISY post-2018, see Elisabeth Kendall, “ISIS in Yemen: Caught in a Regional Power Game,” Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, July 2020.

[l] The Riyadh Agreement was signed in November 2019 between the internationally recognized Yemeni government, backed by Saudi Arabia, and Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), backed by the UAE. It followed an attempt by the STC to move toward establishing an independent state in southern Yemen. The agreement has still not been fully implemented, but in the short term, it has prevented the Saudi-led coalition from falling apart.

[m] AQAP’s official Malahim wire had been posting almost daily until a drone strike in Ma’rib around dawn on May 13, 2020, local time, after which it fell silent for six weeks. This coincided with FBI Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s May 18, 2020, announcement that the United States had recently conducted an operation targeting the AQAP go-between who had posted the claim to the Pensacola operation. It was AQAP’s Malahim wire, which operates under the pseudonym ‘Abd Allah al-Mujahid (literally, ‘the jihadi servant of Allah’), that posted the claim. “Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020; “FBI Director Christopher Wray’s Remarks at Press Conference Regarding Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting Investigation,” FBI National Press Office, May 18, 2020. The drone strike around dawn in Ma’rib on May 13, 2020, was reported by various local groups, including a media outlet close to al-Qa`ida.

[n] After the U.S. drone strike on ‘Abd Allah al-Maliki in mid-May 2020, the Malahim wire fell silent for six weeks. Thereafter, a few posts trickled through, but it only began to post regularly again in late August 2020. Interestingly, however, no operational claims were posted for five full months between April 4 and September 21, 2020.

[o] The years 2020-2021 saw the revival of the following AQAP video series: “Mafahim” (2015-2016), “Min al-Midan” (2014-2015), “Sharh Kitab ‘Mukhtasar Siyasat al-Hurub’ li-l-Harthimi” (2017-2018), and “Ta’ammulat fi Suratay al-Nur wa-l-Hujurat” (2020).

[p] AQAP partisan groups were quick to celebrate an Amtrak derailment in Washington State just four months later as a jihadi operation, but provided no evidence to support this claim.

[q] The Minnesota mall attacker was at least partially motivated by “radical Islamic groups,” the then FBI Director James Comey testified to the House Judiciary Committee after the attack. Nora G. Hertel, “A year later, Crossroads mall stabbings investigation drags on,” St. Cloud Times, September 15, 2017.

[r] The motive for the March 2021 Boulder, Colorado, attack is not clear, and no evidence has been publicly presented of a jihadi nexus to the case. It was reported that “at his first court appearance, [the alleged shooter’s] public defender said her team needed time to evaluate ‘the nature and depth of (his) mental illness.’” Shelly Bradbury, “Boulder shooting suspect faces 43 new charges of attempted murder, weapons violations in King Soopers attack,” Denver Post, April 21, 2021.

[s] Five were sentenced to death, while the others were killed in security operations. Mohammed al-Sulami, “5 Daesh members sentenced to death for assassinating officer, blowing up mosques in Saudi Arabia,” Arab News, March 11, 2021.

[t] It is not clear how well these policies are succeeding. See Yasmine Farouk and Nathan J. Brown, “Saudi Arabia’s Religious Reforms are touching Nothing but changing Everything,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 7, 2021.

[u] These were the Gladiolus off the coast of Mahra (March 3, 2020), the Stolt Apal off the coast of Hadramawt (May 17, 2020), the Echo Leader south of the Red Sea (May 20, 2020), and the Hasan off the coast of Mahra (December 4, 2020). A fifth aggressive approach toward the Andromeda off the coast of Hadramawt (October 4, 2020) was attributed to a UAE attempt to block the tanker’s export of oil, but this was not formally confirmed. Author’s own log of maritime attacks.

[v] It is worth noting that according to a Government of Yemen report, the Houthis released from custody one of the masterminds behind the USS Cole bombing, Jamal al-Badawi, in 2018. He was killed by a U.S. drone the following year. “Taqrir Yakshifu Haqiqat al-Ta’awun wa-l-Tansiq bayna Milishiyyat al-Huthi wa-Tanzimay al-Qa’ida wa-Da’ish,” Government of Yemen report, April 2021, p. 6.

[1] See Michael Knights and Matthew Levitt, “The Evolution of Shi’a Insurgency in Bahrain,” CTC Sentinel 11:1 (2018).

[2] IISS Strategic Dossier, Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East (London: IISS, 2019), pp. 189-190.

[3] Elisabeth Kendall, “Iran’s Fingerprints in Yemen: real or imagined?” Atlantic Council, October 19, 2017.

[4] Elisabeth Kendall, “Contemporary Jihadi Militancy in Yemen,” Middle East Institute Policy Paper 2018-7, July 2018.

[5] Ibrahim al-Yafi’i, “Extensive interview with Khalid Batarfi” (in Arabic), al-Wasat, March 6, 2016.

[6] For details, see Elisabeth Kendall, “The Failing Islamic State within the Failed State of Yemen,” Perspectives on Terrorism 13:1 (2019).

[7] See Elisabeth Kendall, “Al-Qa’ida & Islamic State in Yemen: a Battle for Local Audiences” in Staffell and Awan eds., Jihadism Transformed (London: Hurst, 2016).

[8] “US forces conduct strike against ISIS training camps in Yemen,” U.S. Central Command, October 16, 2017.

[9] “US, Gulf states slap sanctions on Yemen IS, Al-Qaeda figures,” al-Monitor, October 25, 2017.

[10] “Bayan Nafy al-‘Alaqa bi-Tafjirat Masajid al-Huthiyyin fi San’a,’” AQAP Statement, March 20, 2015.

[11] See, for example, “Tawdih Hawla Qadiyat Qutla Qabilat Al Bu Bakr bin Daha wa-Ibn al-Hayj,” AQAP Statement, October 20, 2016.

[12] Author field interviews with three community leaders from Mukalla, November 2015.

[13] Michelle Nichols, “U.N. adds Saudi coalition to blacklist for killing children in Yemen,” Reuters, June 2, 2016.

[14] Statement by Ansar al-Sharia in Abyan, “Istidrak li-Bayan Sabiq,” June 3, 2016.

[15] Author’s own database. These statistics are described and shown in graph form in Kendall, “Contemporary Jihadi Militancy in Yemen,” pp. 9-10.

[16] “Update on recent counterterrorism strikes in Yemen,” No. 20171220-01, U.S. Central Command, December 20, 2017.

[17] “Ta’mim li-l-Ikhwah al-Mujahidin fi Jazirat al-‘Arab,” AQAP statement, December 3, 2017.

[18] “Bayan al-Lajna al-Amniyya li-Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Jazirat al-‘Arab,” AQAP statement, November 2019.

[19] Muslih al-Muhajir, “Haqiqat ma hasala fi ard Qayfa bayna Khawarij al-Baghdadi wa-Ansar al-Shari’a,” al-Badr Media, July 27, 2018.

[20] “Twenty-Fifth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the UN Security Council,” United Nations Security Council, January 20, 2020, p. 8.

[21] Elisabeth Kendall, “ISIS in Yemen: Caught in a Regional Power Game,” Newlines Institute, July 21, 2020.

[22] “Bayan Hamm li-l-Majlis al-Intiqali al-Janubi,” Tahdeeth [sic], February 14, 2020. This is the text of a statement by the Southern Transitional Council (STC). During the course of 2020, several further statements followed alleging increased terrorist activity in various southern governorates.

[23] “Al-Qa’ida Tahta al-Majhar” series, Sawt al-Zarqawi Telegram wire, April 26-27, 2020.

[24] Nihad al-Jariri, “al-Tathir al-‘Irqi: A-li-hadha tatakhallas al-Qa’ida fi Shibh Jazirat al-‘Arab min Abna’i-ha?” Akhbar al-Aan, June 16, 2020.

[25] “Wa-la takun li-l-Kha’inin Khasim-an,” AQAP statement, May 11, 2020.

[26] “Al-I’tizal al-Kabir li-Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi al-Yaman,” Islamic State-linked al-Taqwa media, February 6, 2020. The same pro- and anti-Islah faultline is hinted at in AQAP’s own statement, “Wa-la takun li-l-Kha’inin Khasim-an,” May 11, 2020, pp. 5-6.

[27] “Waqafat wa-Durus min Qissat Talut wa-Jalut,” Al-Malahim Media, video lecture series from Abu Bishr Muhammad Darama, eight episodes between April 17 and May 6, 2021.

[28] Elisabeth Kendall, “Thread: What is #alQaeda in #Yemen? The #AQAP label is …,” Twitter, June 27, 2021.

[29] Nadwa al-Dawsari has highlighted some of the nuances required in thinking about tribes in “Foe not Friend: Yemeni Tribes and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” POMED, February 2018.

[30] Author interviews, on the ground in Yemen, September 2019.

[31] For a useful overview of the main militia groupings in Yemen’s fragmenting war, see Gregory Johnsen, “The end of Yemen,” Brookings Institute, March 25, 2021.

[32] “Al-Jarida tanfaridu bi-Nashr Nass al-Tahqiqat ma’ Qa’id Istikhbarat al-Qa’ida fi al-Yaman,” al-Jarida (Kuwait), November 4, 2010.

[33] Mujahid al-Salali, “Ma Hadath fi Qayfa huwa al-Ati,” Anba’ Yamaniyya, August 23, 2020. See also “al-Qabila wa-l-Naft fi Harb al-Yaman. Ma’rakat Ma’rib al-Akhira,” Akhbar al-Yawm, October 12, 2020.

[34] Ahmad Mashhur, “Shakhsiyyat Mad’uma Imaratiyy-an tusaytir ‘ala Istithmarat Muhafazat al-Janub al-Yamaniyya,” al-Masra (AQAP-linked newspaper) 52, June 13, 2017, p. 4.

[35] “Wa-ma tukhfi Suduru-hum Akbar,” Al-Malahim Media, video message from Khalid Batarfi, February 28, 2019.

[36] “Man li-Ibn Zayid? Fa-huwa Adha Allah wa-Rasula-hu,” video address by Ibrahim al-Qusi, August 2020.

[37] “Risala ila Ahli-na fi Hadramawt,” statement by Ansar al-Shari’a in Hadramawt, March 16, 2017; “Bayan Nasiha wa-I’dhar,” statement by Ansar al-Shari’a in Abyan, August 17, 2017; “Ila Ahli-na fi Shabwa,” statement by Ansar al-Shari’a in Shabwa, August 22, 2017; “Ila Ahli-na fi al-Janub: Mata Yurda’ al-Li’am?” Al-Malahim Media, video message from Khalid Batarfi, July 2017. Note that statements specifically on the south released after 2018 have a somewhat different style and vocabulary. “Bayan bi-Khusus al-Ahdath fi Janub al-Yaman,” AQAP statement, August 26, 2019; “Min al-Midan,” Al-Malahim Media, May 2021, in which Batarfi’s violently anti-southern separatist message was, in fact, lifted from the July 2017 video.

[38] Abu al-Bara’ al-Ibbi, “Saw’ al-Tarbiya min Qibal al-Murabbin,” no. 5 in the series “Asbab al-Intikasa” (Reasons for the Setback), November 5, 2017, p. 1.

[39] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021, p. 8.

[40] Ibid.

[41] “Bayan Nafy,” AQAP statement, April 8, 2021.

[42] See the Rewards for Justice Program’s calls for information on Twitter between June 23 and July 6, 2021, @RFJ_USA.

[43] Ibrahim al-Banna is billed as AQAP’s Chief of Security in its video series “Demolishing Espionage” (2018-2020).

[44] Thomas Joscelyn, “State Department designates founding member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” FDD’s Long War Journal, January 6, 2017.

[45] Ibrahim al-Banna, “Obama’s Ploy and the Peak of Islam,” Inspire 2 (Fall 2010), p. 23.

[46] “Al-Jarida tanfaridu bi-Nashr Nass al-Tahqiqat ma’ Qa’id Istikhbarat al-Qa’ida fi-l-Yaman,” al-Jarida (Kuwait), November 4, 2010.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid. See also “Taqrir: ‘Abu Ayman al-Misri’, Muzawwir Tawalla Qiyadat Jihaz Mukhabarat al-Qa’ida,” 24 (UAE), December 23, 2017.

[49] “Wa-la takun li-l-Kha’inin Khasim-an,” AQAP statement, May 11, 2020.

[50] “Taqrir Yakshifu Haqiqat al-Ta’awun wa-l-Tansiq bayna Milishiyyat al-Huthi wa-Tanzimay al-Qa’ida wa-Da’ish,” Government of Yemen report, April 2021, p. 25.

[51] “Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020.

[52] “Mubaraka wa-Tabanni al-Hujum ‘ala al-Qa’ida al-Jawiyya al-Amrikiyya Pensacola bi-Wilayat Florida,” Al-Malahim Media video, February 2, 2020.

[53] “FBI Director Christopher Wray’s Remarks at Press Conference Regarding Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting Investigation,” FBI National Press Office, May 18, 2020.

[54] Al-Malahim Media, “Train Derail [sic.] Operations,” Inspire 17 (Summer 2017).

[55] “Who is the Victor?” Al-Malahim Media and Inspire, September 2020.

[56] Al-Malahim Media, “Colorado Attack,” Inspire Praise & Guide 6 (June 2021): p. 10.

[57] “Amrika wa-l-Akhdh al-Alim,” Al-Malahim Media, video address by Khalid Batarfi, February 2021.

[58] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 8.

[59] “Bayan Munasara wa-Tadamun ma’ Ikhwani-na fi Filastin,” AQAP statement, May 2021.

[60] “Communiqué en soutien à l’Honorable Messager d’Allah,” AQAP statement, September 10, 2020.

[61] “Communiqué concernant les derniers incidents en France,” AQAP statement, January 3, 2021.

[62] “Déclaration de Louange et de Bénédiction pour les Opérations de la Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Muslimine,” AQAP statement, January 30, 2021.

[63] “Communiqué concernant les derniers incidents en France,” AQAP statement, January 3, 2021.

[64] “Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation,” Washington Post, September 20, 2001.

[65] “France, People and Society,” CIA World Factbook, accessed August 13, 2021.

[66] “Jawanib min Taghtiyat Multaqa ‘Qadimun Ya Aqsa’ bi-Madinat al-Mukalla,” Al-Athir Media Agency (AQAP’s governance arm), March 9, 2016.

[67] “Wajibu-na tujaha Qudsi-na,” Al-Malahim Media, video address by Khalid Batarfi, January 2018.

[68] “Yusari’una fi-him: Kalima Hawla al-Musara’a bi-l-Tatbi’ ma’ al-Kiyan al-Ghasib,” Al-Malahim Media, video address by Khalid Batarfi, March 2019; “Man li-Ibn Zayid? Fa-huwa Adha Allah wa-Rasula-hu,” video address by Ibrahim al-Qusi, August 2020; “Hard al-Mu’minin ‘ala al-Qital,” video address by Ibrahim al-Qusi, November 2020.

[69] “Bayan Hawla ma Tanaqalat-hu Wasa’il al-I’lam min Insha’ Qa’ida ‘Askariyya Isra’iliyya fi Jazirat Suqutra,” AQAP statement, September 6, 2020.

[70] “Bayan Munasara wa-Tadamun ma’ Ikhwani-na fi Filastin,” AQAP statement, May 8, 2021.

[71] Abdullah K. Al-Saud, “Saudi Foreign Fighters: Analysis of Leaked Islamic State Entry Documents,” ICSR, February 2019, p. 8.

[72] Abdullah Bin Khaled Al-Saud, “Deciphering IS’s Narrative and Activities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Terrorism and Political Violence 32:3 (2020): pp. 469-488.

[73] The competition between the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia for Islam’s holiest sites is brilliantly narrated and analyzed by Cole Bunzel in “The Kingdom and the Caliphate: Duel of the Islamic States,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 18, 2016.

[74] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[75] Abdullah Bin Khaled Al-Saud.

[76] Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[77] Maria-Louise Clausen, “The Struggle for Islam’s Heartland: The Case of Saudi Arabia,” in Manni Crone, Mona Kanwal Sheikh, Lars Erslev Andersen, Maria-Louise Clausen, and Isak Svensson, Expanding Jihad (Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, 2017), p. 68.

[78] “Nineteen people arrested over Saudi Arabia Attacks,” Al Jazeera, July 8, 2016.

[79] “Al-Sa’udiyya .. Tafkik Shabakat Da’ishiyya min 3 Khalaya Irhabiyya,” Al Arabiya, September 19, 2016.

[80] “Siyadat Khayr al-Umam fi Intifadat Ahl al-Haram,” Part 6, Al-Sahab Media, March 2018.

[81] Al-Sahab Media, al-Nafir 8, February 2017.

[82] Al-Sahab Media, al-Nafir 15, May 2017.

[83] Al-Sahab Media, al-Nafir 16, September 2017; al-Nafir 27, July 2018.

[84] Al-Sahab Media, al-Nafir 18, December 2017.

[85] Al-Sahab Media, al-Nafir 26, April 2018.

[86] Al-Sahab Media, al-Nafir 28, December 2017.

[87] Najah al-Otaibi, “Vision 2030: Religious Education Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, September 2020, pp. 7-8.

[88] “Saudi Education Ministry Establishes Intellectual Awareness Units to Combat Extremism,” Asharq Al-Awsat, March 16, 2021.

[89] “Sahayinat al-Jazira,” video address by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Sahab Media, December 2018.

[90] “Jarima la Tughtafar” video, Al-Sahab Media, July 2021.

[91] Cole Bunzel and Bernard Haykel, “Messages to Arabia: Al-Qaida Attacks MBS and the Saudi Monarchy,” Jihadica, January 24, 2019.

[92] “Hadm al-Jasusiyya, 3,” Al-Malahim Media, October 2019.

[93] “Nadhir al-Shu’m ‘ala Hukkam Aal Sa’ud wa-Da’wa li-l-Sad’ bi-l-Haqq,” AQAP and AQIM statement, September 28, 2017.

[94] Al-Malahim Media, “Liqa’ Suhufi ma’ al-Sheikh Khalid bin ‘Umar Batarfi,” June 2018.

[95] “Hadm al-Jasusiyya, 2,” Al-Malahim Media, January 2019.

[96] “Hadm al-Jasusiyya, 3,” Al-Malahim Media, October 2019.

[97] The failure of jihad in Saudi Arabia up until a decade ago is deftly outlined by Thomas Hegghammer in “The Failure of Jihad in Saudi Arabia,” CTC Occasional Paper, February 25, 2010.

[98] “Saudi Youth in Numbers: A report for International Youth Day 2020,” Statistical Analysis and Decision Support Center (Saudi Arabia), 2020, p. 5.

[99] Al-Yafi’i, “Extensive interview with Khalid Batarfi.”

[100] “Tahni’a wa-Mubaraka bi-l-Fath wa-l-Tamkin fi Afghanistan,” AQAP statement, August 18, 2021.

[101] Ibid.

[102] “Min al-Yaman li-l-‘Alamayn,” Mus’ab al-Adani Telegram channel, August 12, 2020 (poem) and August 14, 2020 (nashid).

[103] Al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent, “On Targeting the Achilles Heel of Western Economies,” Resurgence 1 (Fall 2014), pp. 94-104.

[104] “Briefing to United Nations Security Council by the Special Envoy for Yemen,” United Nations Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, May 12, 2021.

[105] Al-Yafi’i, “Extensive interview with Khalid Batarfi.”

[106] Dalia Dassa Kaye, Linda Robinson, Jeffrey Martini, Nathan Vest, and Ashley L. Rhoades, Reimagining U.S. Strategy in the Middle East (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021).

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