Twenty Years After 9/11: The Jihadi Threat in the Arabian Peninsula.

Date01 September 2021
AuthorKendall, Elisabeth

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 2006jailbreak, 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 airstrikes (8) 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-a-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)

Fragmentation and Infighting, 2017-2021

After losing its 'state' in...

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