Last weekend’s headlines were filled with what was being described as the most serious terrorism threat to Western targets in some years. As a consequence, the US closed 20 of its embassies in Middle Eastern and African cities for the rest of the week. The UK embassy in the Yemeni capital Sana’a has been closed and all staff flown home, while the French and German embassies there have also closed.
Apparently, the closures took place after intercepted communications between two senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, indicated a re-invigorated terrorist campaign involving Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Yemeni authorities reported that they’d disrupted plans to blow up oil pipelines and take control of key cities in the country, including ports in the south which distribute a majority of Yemen’s oil exports.
This dangerous situation prompted firm action from Western governments. But why does AQAP create such concern from the US and UK that they act in such a proactive manner? There are of course multiple reasons for this genuine concern, but predominantly it comes from the fact that AQAP has technical skills (bomb making and modern communications) and they have the intent to hit targets globally.
The ‘movement’ which bin Laden originally inspired spread during the 2000s to new centres of focus, sprouting new franchises in North and Eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Most prominent amongst those has been Yemen, where the influence of the charismatic preacher Anwar al-Awlaki saw al-Qaeda’s strength in that country grow to worrying levels. Attacks, both successful and unsuccessful, from 2009 onwards in the UK, Europe and the US demonstrated the influence that al-Awlaki, an American national, and his group have had on driving forward global jihad into the 2010s.
A character that the public and security analysts came to know through his regular appearances on TV, al-Awlaki’s defining feature was his ability to exploit the internet to promulgate his sermons and writings. This was reinforced by his fluency in Arabic and English which assisted him in constructing a following among young Muslims living in Western nations, especially the UK and US. A UK government analysis of YouTube in 2009 found that al-Awlaki had 1,910 videos on the site, many of which had been viewed thousands of times.
His effectiveness flowed from his ability to network and influence new recruits, rather than offering the field training that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri previously provided.
The news that that Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, editor of the Inspire magazine, had been killed on 30 September 2011 by a US drone attack in Yemen added further strength to the idea that al-Qaeda as an organisation was in decline, having suffered hammer blows to its strategic leadership through the course of 2011. But it would be a leap to see this as the ultimate demise of the organisation, especially in light of the fact that there are still many influential AQAP figureheads still at large in Yemen who provide it with backbone and capability.
Amongst these highly influential individuals are Ibrahim al-Asiri, a known master bomb maker who is claimed to be responsible for the device that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate on a plane over Detroit in 2009, and the bombs that AQAP tried to ship to the US in 2010 in printer cartridges. In addition, still at large are Qasim al-Raymi, thought of as the military commander for AQAP, and Nasir Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi, a former personal assistant to bin Laden who oversaw the merging of Saudi Arabian and Yemeni splinters of al-Qaeda to form AQAP. So while diminished, the organisation still exists operationally.
The weekend’s announcement and the current concern of an impending attack mean three things. First, that judgements of AQAP’s capability has once again been raised to levels unknown since the death of al-Awlaki in 2011. While clearly not intended to do so, this will again bring attention to AQAP, their cause and their material. The Inspire magazine is still published and any publicity like this will draw in additional readership. Secondly, the increased threat has seen US drone strikes begin again after a seven-week pause, with four strikes in rapid succession. These are likely to be continued for the foreseeable future, which leads to the third consequence—that the longer term victims in this equation will be the Yemeni population themselves.
It’s important to understand the underlying issues in Yemen that allow such groups to operate, and the possibilities for AQAP gaining further traction in the region. Yemen is the Arab world’s most impoverished country: according to Oxfam, some 40% of a rapidly growing population live on less than A$2.15 per day, and approximately 7.5 million Yemenis are going hungry and have serious problems in gaining access to fresh water. Despite relatively large oil reserves, crude is sold to pay for food imports, and illicit economies are the norm. In addition, there’s a longstanding conflict in the north of the country which continues to create serious social disparities and frictions, thus providing non-state actors with a fertile ground for operations. Until these issues are resolved, we can expect AQAP to maintain a foothold in Yemen for the foreseeable future.
Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Irinphotos.