Also Known As:
- Al-Qaedah in the Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Qaida al-Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Qaida Organization in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
- Al-Quaida Organization in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
- Al-Qaida of Jihad Organization in the Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Qaida of Jihad Organization in the Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Qaida in Yemen (AQY)
- Al-Qa’ida in Yemen (AQY)
- Al-Qaida in the South Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Qa'ida in the South Arabian Peninsula
- Al-Quaida in the South Arabian Peninsula
- Ansar al-Shari’a (AAS)
- Ansar al-Sharia (AAS)
- Ansar al Shariah
- Ansar al-Shariah
- Civil Council of Hadramawt
- Jama'at Ansar al-Shari'a
- National Hadramawt Council
- Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi-Jazirat al-Arab
- Sons of Abyan
- Sons of Hadramawt
- Sons of Hadramawt Committee
- Supporters of Sharia
- Partisans of Islamic Law
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the union of al-Qaeda’s branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. AQAP has carried out violent jihadist attacks both domestically and internationally in service of al-Qaeda’s ideology. Although the group carries out most of its attacks inside Yemen, AQAP is widely known for carrying out the fatal shooting at the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, as well as for its involvement in terrorist plots on U.S. soil, including the “Christmas Day Bomber” in 2009 and the “Times Square Bomber” in 2010.
After Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s removal from office in early 2012, AQAP took advantage of the fractured political scene by establishing an insurgency in southern Yemen. Since Yemen descended into civil war in 2015, AQAP has benefited from the political vacuum by attempting to develop its own pseudo-state in the southern region. The civil war has coincidentally strengthened AQAP by causing Western forces to withdraw and the Yemeni and Saudi Arabia forces to focus on the opposing Houthi rebels. AQAP has been further strengthened by the material support its affiliates have received from the anti-Houthi coalition, as the coalition often turns a blind-eye to AQAP and its affiliates and regularly enters into alliances with the group. In fact, three associates of the Saudi-backed President Mansour al-Hadi have appeared on a U.S. Treasury list of global terrorists for allegedly providing financial support to, and acting on behalf of, AQAP. The United States responded with an expanded counterterrorism campaign, consisting primarily of drone strikes against AQAP leaders. An Associated Press investigation in August 2018 accused both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia of integrating former AQAP fighters into their allied Yemeni forces. The report found that the UAE had paid local tribes, whose members were at the time allied with AQAP, in order to convince them to switch sides and help force out AQAP militants from those areas. Senior UAE commanders further confirmed that they recruited “many AQAP ‘fighters’ [who] were just young men under their [AQAP] control who were coerced or persuaded to take up arms.”
AQAP operates throughout Yemen, primarily in the country’s southern and central regions. In many of these provinces, AQAP governs small pockets of territory with sharia (Islamic law) courts and a heavily armed militia. AQAP attempts to appeal to the Yemeni people by meeting their basic needs and integrating into the local population, including by conforming to the local governance structures. According to a February 2017 report by the International Crisis Group, AQAP has successfully presented itself as “part of a wider Sunni front against Houthi expansion,” further providing the organization with local allies and room to operate in the country. In addition to controlling territory in Yemen, AQAP is believed to pose a major terrorist threat to the United States.
In the group’s inaugural video in 2009, AQAP’s former leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi announced the merging of al-Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to form AQAP. In the video, Wuhayshi formally declared the group’s intention to avenge its enemies “with blood and destruction,” in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate and implement Sharia law.
Wuhayshi ended his opening speech with prayers tailored to AQAP’s goals:
“O Allah! Bring conquest over the Holy Mosque and the Haramain [highway from Mecca to Medina] by our hands! O Allah Give us the honor by establishing the Islamic State with our hands!”
An AQAP document from 2012 expanded on these objectives. According to the document, AQAP’s primary goals are to “[e]xpel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula” and “[e]stablish the Islamic Caliphate and Shari’ah rule which the apostate governments have suspended.”
In pursuing these ends, AQAP champions a violent interpretation of jihad and offers a number of ways Muslims can support its agenda, such as “[i]nform[ing] the Mujahideen [jihadists] about spies and the presence of Jews, Christians and the greatest criminals.” AQAP also encourages Muslims to “[b]e hostile to and hate the infidel” and “[r]aise children to love Jihad.”
As a formal affiliate of al-Qaeda, AQAP’s ideology and practices fall in line with al-Qaeda’s broader goals of working towards global Islamist domination. AQAP seeks to execute its Islamist mission through violent jihad, and is believed to be the al-Qaeda affiliate most ideologically similar to al-Qaeda’s core. Although the group is based in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, members have attempted to carry out terrorist plots worldwide.
According to a 2010 report from the think-tank New America, AQAP is “compartmentalized and hierarchical, with a distinct division of labor. It has a political leader who provides overall direction, a military chief to plan operational details, a propaganda wing that seeks to draw in recruits, and a religious branch that tries to justify attacks from a theological perspective while offering spiritual guidance.”
Since mid-2017, however, AQAP has suffered from losses to its leadership and field commanders due to extensive Yemeni and international counterterrorism operations, according to the U.N. Analytical Support Sanctions Monitoring Team’s July 2018 report. Notably in late 2017, AQAP’s chief bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri was killed, creating an operational vacuum, as well as senior propagandist Abu Hajar al-Makki, severely disrupting the group’s propaganda efforts. Additionally, when senior cleric Ibrahim al-Rubaish was killed in 2015, AQAP left his position vacant before eventually appointing Yemeni jihadist Abdullah Mubarak to serve as the “new sharia official” more than two years later.
In 2011, AQAP created a domestic affiliate called Ansar al Sharia (AAS). According to the International Crisis Group, AAS serves as AQAP’s domestic insurgent arm, drawing in recruits who has been wary of AQAP, “which many Yemenis view as a regime instrument … and likely to trigger a military backlash.”
AQAP was most recently headed by Khalid Batarfi, until his alleged arrest by Yemeni forces on October 2, 2020. Batarfi was named emir following the death of AQAP emir and co-founder, Qasim al-Raymi, in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020. Raymi filled this position on June 16, 2015, one day after former AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi died in a U.S. drone strike. Little is known about Raymi’s specific role, but it is suspected that he has inherited Wuhayshi’s responsibilities. Wuhayshi was responsible for directing AQAP’s entire program, as well as overseeing all of its individual branches. According to a classified U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks, Wuhayshi’s duties specifically included “approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks.”
The group’s military branch plans all of AQAP’s violent attacks, such as bomb and suicide missions, as well as guerilla attacks against the Yemeni government and military. It also organizes AQAP’s kidnapping operations and robberies. Crucial to AQAP’s military branch was its chief bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. Asiri was responsible for AQAP’s most high-profile bombing attempts, including the “Christmas Day Bomber” attempt in 2009 and the “Times Square Bomber” attempt in 2010. He was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike in late 2017. U.N. experts consider his death a serious setback to AQAP’s operational capabilities. In 2018, AQAP appointed several regional leaders as well as a new “military commander,” a lesser-known jihadist called Ammar al-San’ani.
AQAP relies heavily on its propaganda branch to attract recruits and build its base of support. This branch is also responsible for outreach beyond AQAP’s base in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. One of AQAP’s most notorious recruiters is Anwar al-Awlaki, who directed the “Christmas Day Bomber” in 2009 and was linked to the Fort Hood shooter in 2009 and the “Times Square Bomber” in 2010. AQAP has a media channel entitled “al-Malahem,” which has been called AQAP’s “official propaganda arm.” Al-Malahem publishes a bi-monthly magazine in Arabic directed at its Yemeni audience, as well as an English-language periodical called Inspire directed at its Western audience.
AQAP also publishes al-Masra, a digital newsletter that is released several times per month. Though al-Masra is produced by AQAP, it includes news updates on the entire al-Qaeda network. For recruitment purposes, al-Masra also provides al-Qaeda’s take on high-profile political developments in Western countries.
According to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), in December 2017, the United States and its allies repeatedly targeted AQAP’s propaganda officials in counterterrorism operations, disrupting and reducing the group’s propaganda production capabilities. For example, al-Malahem lost its main propagandist, Abu Hajar al-Makki, in an airstrike in 2017, and al-Masra was unable to maintain its ability to produce three publications per month. In an attempt to revitalize AQAP’s media operations, al-Badr Media Foundation announced its presence online in May 2018. The media group aims to refute so-called rumors about AQAP—in particular those perpetuated by Western and Arab media, incite Muslims to join their cause, and increase “security awareness” among the group. On May 24, al-Badr released its first publication via Telegram, a collection of statements and tips on how to avoid detection by U.S. drones and surveillance measures.
Moreover, AQAP senior leader Khalid Batarfi, a prominent spokesperson, appears to have taken over the group’s propaganda operations to strengthen AQAP’s global portfolio. On February 23, 2020, following the death of former AQAP leader Qasim al-Raymi in a U.S. drone strike, AQAP confirmed that Batarfi was the group’s new leader. On October 2, it was alleged that Batarfi turned himself into Yemeni forces following a Saudi-led raid in al-Mahrah.
AQAP’s religious branch was headed by senior cleric and former Guantanamo detainee Ibrahim al-Rubaish. As “mufti” of AQAP, Rubaish carried the authority within AQAP to issue fatwas (religious rulings). Rubaish also released public statements in response to prominent religious clerics from around the world in order to advocate for AQAP’s behavior and seek to justify its violent ideology. In this way, AQAP’s religious branch serves as an extension of its propaganda branch. As AQAP anticipates the eventual institution of sharia (Islamic law), the group also maintains a designated religious expert. On April 13, 2015, AQAP confirmed that Rubaish was killed in a U.S. airstrike near the southern coastal city of Mukalla. Nearly two years later, AQAP’s emir Qasim al-Raymi appointed Abdullah Mubarak, a Yemeni jihadist, as AQAP’s “new sharia official.”
According to the U.S. State Department, AQAP’s funding comes primarily from “theft, robberies, oil and gas revenue, kidnap-for-ransom operations, and donations from like-minded supporters.”
In a 2012 letter to Algerian allies, AQAP founder Nasir al-Wuhayshi wrote that “most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid for through the spoils. Almost half the spoils [for a year-long operation in Yemen] came from hostages.” Wuhayshi then called kidnapping “an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.” Between 2011 and 2013, AQAP received approximately $30 million in ransom payments.
In addition to taking hostages, AQAP relies heavily on heists and armed robberies. In August 2009, WikiLeaks revealed that suspected AQAP members stole an estimated $500,000 in a single heist. There have also been reports of AQAP partaking in gun and drug smuggling, as well as local sex trafficking through forced marriages. According to Yemeni analyst Ahmad Abd Allah al-Sufi, the group has trafficked opium.
AQAP held Yemen’s third-largest port from April 2015 to April 2016, which allegedly generated millions of dollars for the group. The southeastern Yemeni port city of Mukalla purportedly housed 1,000 AQAP fighters, who controlled nearly 375 miles of the coastline. According to Yemeni officials and local tribal leaders, AQAP fighters patrolled the waters off its controlled coast and imposed taxes and tariffs on passing ships. In this way, the terrorist group has reportedly generated between another two to five million a day from its port revenue. The Mukalla port, which has since been seized by forces from the United Arab Emirates, also reportedly functions as a hub for smuggling fuel.
AQAP has stolen from numerous banks across Yemen. While AQAP held Mukalla, the militants looted the city’s central bank branch, netting an estimated $100 million. According to Yemeni security officials, the looting represented AQAP’s “biggest financial gain to date” and was “enough to fund them at the level they have been operating at for at least another 10 years.” This access to additional sources of revenue discontinued when Yemeni government forces retook control of Mukalla in April 2016.
As a result of AQAP’s violent operations, the group is largely self-funded. However, another source of AQAP funding is donations from fraudulent charities and “like-minded supporters,” most of whom are reportedly Saudi nationals.
AQAP has turned to print, digital, and social media to bolster recruitment.
In 2010, AQAP launched an English online magazine, Inspire, to reach Western sympathizers and potential recruits. Inspire answers questions about AQAP and its mission and how to support them, from building homemade bombs to calls for lone wolf attacks in the United States. Analyst Gregory Johnsen has said that Inspire helps AQAP “reach, influence and inspire other like-minded individuals in the west. No longer do these individuals need to travel to Yemen or read Arabic in order to take instructions from AQAP. Now they can just download and read the magazine in English.”
Inspire’s first issue in July 2010 included an article titled, “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” which described how to make a bomb using everyday items. The August 2014 issue contained a nine-page guide on how to make car bombs, and suggested terror targets in the United Kingdom and the United States. Its December 2014 issue featured instructions on how to make a bomb that could evade airport security. The July 2017 issue elaborated on targeting public transportation as well as train derailing operations. It also analyzed recent lone jihad operations in Western countries—such as the 2016 Nice attack in France that killed 86 people—and referenced lessons learned. AQAP also highlighted these attacks in a series of five publications called “Inspire Guide.” In May 2017, AQAP released a video message of Qasim al-Raymi encouraging lone wolf attacks in the West—the first using the “Inspire Address” banner.
In 2012, AQAP released a recruitment guide called Expectations Full, primarily written by Samir Khan, the late editor of Inspire. The guide calls on potential Western-based recruits to forgo traveling to the region and requests they instead target America. According to the guide, “attacking the enemy in their backyard” is one of the most helpful missions recruits can undertake, even more than fighting together with AQAP in Yemen.
AQAP turned to social media in 2012, posting messages on jihadist websites and forums to attract western recruits. One Arabic-language message on the Shumukh and al-Fidaa jihadist forums, posted by a user claiming to be a member of AQAP’s military committee, calls on recruits to launch suicide missions in their home countries. According to the post, “individual jihad or the so-called lone wolf has become popular.” The messages provide email addresses for recruits to contact AQAP.
In recent years, AQAP has continued to exploit the opportunities for recruitment provided by social media sites. On Twitter, for example, as soon as an AQAP account is shut down, another emerges almost immediately, typically using a new name (“handle”) with one character amended. In November 2014, AQAP even launched its own “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) Twitter account, providing official answers to questions such as “Why haven’t there been further AQAP attacks inside the US? Why don’t you move the war from Yemen to US soil?” The job of resolving such queries from prospective jihadists falls to Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, the AQAP senior official who claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015.
According to one spy who infiltrated AQAP, the group is increasingly demanding that prospective recruits coming to Yemen, Oman, Syria, and other Middle Eastern states have clean passports and clean names. Anyone who is suspected of being subject to government surveillance is excluded from the recruitment net.
Since ISIS established its own affiliate branch in Yemen in November 2014, AQAP and ISIS have competed for recruits and influence, each seeking to dominate the Salafi-jihadist movement in Yemen. According to Yemeni officials, a “real competition” developed between the groups in 2015, despite the fact that AQAP supporters numbered in the hundreds and ISIS supporters only in the dozens. Some AQAP cells have reportedly switched allegiance to ISIS due to factors such as ISIS's global reputation for victory and a higher pay rate.
Since the start of 2015, AQAP has been seizing territory throughout southern Yemen and providing public services to the local population. As a result of the Yemeni insurgency, many of the southern regions’ security forces have left to fight alongside the coalition forces against the Houthi rebels in the north. AQAP has been attempting to fill the political vacuum to reportedly gain the trust of the southern population. In late March 2015, AQAP unveiled a new well in Yemen’s southern, arid Hadramaut region. According to Middle East analyst Thomas Joscelyn, AQAP attempts to embed itself in the local population as opposed to gaining their submission through brutal violence, as ISIS has done in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. AQAP has reportedly constructed bridges, dug wells, built roads, and provided humanitarian assistance throughout the southern region and has highlighted these efforts on its social media accounts and in its Arabic-language propaganda magazine, al-Masra. According to Jamestown Foundation analyst Michael Horton, AQAP’s “more covert strategy” has enabled it “to expand its ties to local communities and to further enmesh itself within some forces battling the Houthis and their allies.” Nonetheless, AQAP has also resorted to cash payments in exchange for support after the it seized control of Mukalla in April 2015.
According to the U.N. experts, AQAP is estimated to have between 6,000 and 7,000 fighters in Yemen, representing an increase from U.S. estimates in 2017 of “the low thousands.” Dr. Gregory Johnsen, member of the U.N. Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen, notes that while the latest membership figures are accurate, they can be misleading. Even though AQAP’s domestic insurgency has recorded an influx of recruits, the terror group has not increased as a threat to the West. He stated: “Contrary to the picture painted by the numbers, AQAP is the weakest it has ever been. Decimated by drone strikes and challenged by rivals, its international terrorist side is a shadow of its former self. Only its domestic insurgency side—bolstered by Yemen’s messy war—is growing.”
AQAP’s primary stronghold is located in the al-Mahfad area of the Abyan Province in southern Yemen. In May 2014, a Yemeni official remarked that AQAP training camps were the “most active” in the al-Mahfad region. AQAP training camps also operate in the governorates of Shabwa, Hadramawt, and Marib.
On July 14, 2016, AQAP released a video showing its so-called special forces training at the Hamza al Zinjibari training camp in southern Yemen. The video depicts AQAP fighters conducting weapons training, physical workouts, live fire scenarios, and martial arts training. Senior AQAP member and former Guantanamo Bay detainee Ibrahim al-Qosi was highlighted in the film stating “thousands of” AQAP fighters have been trained in these types of camps, which has “had a clear impact in different jihadi fronts.” The video also exhibits the militants’ abilities to conduct assaults and kidnappings using SUVs and motorcycles.
Said Kouachi, one of the perpetrators of the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris, trained with AQAP in Yemen between 2009 and 2011. According to a senior Yemeni security official, Kouachi trained in and around Dammaj, a town in northwest Yemen that is home to the country’s largest Salafist school. Kouachi is believed to have trained in camps in the surrounding area in which hundreds of foreigners would train in “unmonitored… AQAP-controlled areas.”
AQAP has also disseminated training guides amongst recruits and sympathizers. AQAP’s largest guide, the “Encyclopedia of Jihad,” is a collection of ‘textbooks’ that includes information on “making explosives; first aid; use of pistols, grenades and mines; espionage; security precautions; acts of sabotage; secure communication; brainwashing; reconnaissance; infiltration; how to attack; the history and design of tanks; physical fitness; use of compasses; how to read maps; and use of artillery guns, machine guns and armor-piercing weapons.” There are only 30 copies of the “Encyclopedia.” Trainees were required to write down the text as it was dictated to them. The “Encyclopedia” became available on the Internet, in Arabic, in 2003.