Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a long established presence in Yemen and has exploited the political and security vacuum following the 2011 revolution to expand its territory in the east of the country, especially in Hadramawt province.
The Houthi advance into Sana’a and areas of central and southern Yemen over 2015 has again enabled AQAP to strengthen its position in the country. The conflict between pro- and anti-Houthi forces has led to political upheaval and a collapse of government authority, even in areas not directly affected by the ongoing fighting.
The conflict with Shi’a Houthi rebels has also provided AQAP with a useful sectarian narrative upon which to build support, allowing it to position itself as a defender of Sunni interests. Since 2014, AQAP has escalated its attacks on Houthi forces, as well as government security forces, and allied with Sunni tribes in order to resist Houthi advances in areas such as Ibb.
Conflict in Yemen has enabled AQAP to strengthen its presence in previously contested areas in the east, including Marib, Abyan and Shabwa. Moreover, recent gains by pro-government forces have facilitated the group’s expansion into new areas further west into al-Bayda and Aden. AQAP, largely in alliance with tribes and local Salafist groups, has held control of Mukalla and much of surrounding Hadramawt governorate, a traditional stronghold of the group, since April.
Despite openly operating in key territory such as oil-rich Marib, AQAP has not been targeted by the Saudi-led coalition. While the coalition has denied the presence of militants on the front lines, AQAP has highlighted in recent propaganda its role in fighting alongside anti-Houthi forces in southern and eastern Yemen. AQAP’s expansion and deepening involvement in anti-Houthi fighting is part of an attempt to strengthen alliances with local resistance forces and enhance its appeal amid competition from the Islamic State group, which has also established a presence in Yemen, carrying out multiple high-profile attacks over 2015.
Conflict and internal division among Yemeni security forces have seriously disrupted US-backed counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP. The US has continued to launch unmanned drone strikes against AQAP insurgents in Yemen, but critical intelligence gathering operations have been affected by the evacuation of the last US special forces from Yemen in March and the loss of local partners on the ground.
Increasingly battle-hardened AQAP militants have taken advantage of the deteriorating security situation by seizing large amounts of weapons from military facilities and raiding prisons to free jailed supporters, swelling their numbers and capabilities.
The coalition-backed ground offensive that has seen anti-Houthi forces recapture much of southern Yemen since mid-July, has also allowed AQAP to expand. While some groups, such as the Sons of Marib Alliance comprising the Murad, Obaidah and Jedaan tribes, were formed earlier in the conflict to resist both Houthis and AQAP, throughout August, joint AQAP-tribal military operations against Houthi forces have been reported in Ibb and Abyan.
Similar offensives have been taken in place of al-Bayda, with AQAP forces reportedly establishing territorial control over some districts, including Ja’ar, al-Zahar and al-Sawma. Some operations have been carried out with tribal leaders such as Tarq al Fadhli who have long been supportive of AQAP, but reports have indicated militants are successfully expanding their network of alliances in fighting against Houthi forces.
Significantly, in August roughly 100 AQAP fighters briefly seized control of Aden’s Tahwai district before withdrawing for unconfirmed reasons. The reported presence in Aden demonstrates how AQAP will be able to continue exploiting power vacuums in areas of fighting, with security forces unable to secure territory following the ejection of Houthi rebels and their allies.
Despite the demonstrated regional threat from AQAP, the Saudi-led coalition has prioritised the fight against Houthi rebels. Any effort to widen the coalition mission to include attacks on AQAP would be complicated by the presence of militants fighting alongside tribal allies on the frontlines.
Although there were reports in August that military units loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (right), were considering plans for an offensive to retake Mukalla from AQAP, it is unclear whether the exiled government, which has proven unable to secure its main base in Aden, is capable of mounting an effective operation against more distant militant strongholds. Such an operation would be dependent on supportof local tribal forces, and it is unclear whether the government can mobilise sufficient backing for a campaign to oust AQAP from strongholds in the east, underscoring the risk of reliance on irregular forces. The absence of notable resistance to AQAP’s expansion underscores the deterioration of local political and security institutions.
The growing threat from AQAP in Yemen is symptomatic of the wider challenges facing any attempt to restore stability and government authority. AQAP has been linked to recent bombings in Aden targeting government interests and a spate of recent assassinations of security officials in the city bored the hallmarks of previous attacks by the group. Given the AQAP’s expanding influence presence and the weak security environment across Yemen, AQAP could establish a covert presence in the country, enabling valuable intelligence gathering and a strengthening of the group’s capabilities. This could leave other targets, including critical national infrastructure such as ports and energy facilities, including the Balhaf liquefied natural gas terminal, vulnerable to future attacks. The persistence of the wider conflict in Yemen will undermine efforts to rebuild security forces, leaving the government reliant on local armed groups, including separatists in the south, who might pursue their own agendas once the Houthi threat is perceived to have diminished. This continued instability will enable AQAP to maintain or expand its influence further in Yemen.
This article was published by PGI Intelligence, a leading provider of Corporate Investigations and Geo-political Risk Consulting to governments and the private sector.