Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda Unite in Yemen

09/24/2015 04:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2015
  • Giorgio Cafiero CEO and co-founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy
  • Daniel Wagner CEO of Country Risk Solutions / co-author of the book "Global Risk Agility and Decision Making".

In viewing Yemen as an important battleground in the grander struggle against Iran's expanding regional influence, Saudi Arabia has united with a variety of Yemeni Sunni factions in an effort to crush the Houthi insurgency. This has entailed the kingdom cooperating with Sunni Islamist groups that Saudi Arabia--along with other Arab and Western governments--have designated as "terrorist" organizations. However, as the U.S. continues to wage its War on Terror in Yemen, Riyadh's strategy is complicating the kingdom's already chilly relationship with Washington.

Saudi Arabia's alignment with "terrorist" groups in Yemen was highlighted in June when the Saudi-backed exiled Yemeni government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi sent Abdel-Wahab Humayqani to Geneva as one of its delegates in the failed UN-sponsored roundtable talks. In December 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Humayqani a "Specifically Designated Global Terrorist," having allegedly served as a recruiter and financier for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and having orchestrated a car bombing in March 2012 that targeted a Yemeni Republican Guard base, killing seven.

Despite the international community's condemnation of Saudi Arabia's bombing of civilian areas in Yemen, recent victories on the part of Riyadh-sponsored forces in Aden and elsewhere seem to have inspired greater confidence in the kingdom that the Sunni Arab coalition can crush the Houthi insurgency through a prolonged military campaign. Yet, Saudi Arabia's embrace of such extremists raises questions about whether the kingdom will attempt to achieve victory over the Houthis--viewed in Riyadh as a proxy of Iran--at any price, and serves to reemphasize concerns that many in the West have had about the company Riyadh chooses to keep.

Historical Context

After thousands of Yemeni nationals who had joined ranks with Osama bin Laden in the Soviet-Afghan War returned to Yemen in 1980s, the Saudi-backed Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh sponsored such militants in the fight against South Yemen's Marxist regime, and later in a campaign to defeat southern secessionists. During the 1990s, Yemen became a central location for militant Salafist groups such as AQAP's predecessors, including Islamic Jihad in Yemen, Army Aden Abyan and al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY).

By the early 2000s, AQY had weakened as a result of a declining membership, but Saudi Arabia's crackdown on its own local al-Qaeda branch prompted many Saudi members to flee to Yemen. By 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni branches had merged into AQAP. In addition to targeting the central state of Yemen, Houthi insurgents, and Western nationals/interests in Yemen, AQAP has also made clear its intention to topple the ruling Saudi family, accusing it of maintaining an "unholy" alliance with the U.S.

In August 2009, then-Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayif (currently the kingdom's Crown Prince) met with members of the public as part of a Ramadan celebration, including Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri, a militant from AQAP who claimed to have renounced terrorism and had asked to repent before the Prince. Al-Asiri's real intentions were made clear after he entered a room with Mohammed bin Nayif and detonated an improvised explosive device carried inside him. The explosion killed Asiri but failed to assassinate the prince, leaving him with only minor injuries. It is indeed remarkable that Saudi Arabia appears to be teaming up with the group that only six years ago carried out that failed assassination attempt on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayif.

The de facto partnership between Riyadh and AQAP is made further evident by the fact that the Saudi-led military coalition has entirely avoided bombing AQAP targets, despite its aggressive bombing of other territories under Houthi control. While doubtful that AQAP has abandoned its objective of overthrowing the Saudi monarchy, Riyadh likely perceives its tacit alliance with AQAP as a short-term venture and is focused on the immediate task at hand.

Perhaps under the pretext of countering Wilayat al-Yemen (Yemen's Daesh--also known as the "Islamic State"--division), Riyadh perceives strategic value in working with its rival, AQAP. Although Wilayat al-Yemen and AQAP have thus far not waged any large-scale armed campaigns again each other, their competition for recruits and the mantle of Yemen's dominant Sunni Islamist militia lead some analysts to expect their conflicting interests to eventually pit the two groups against each other. Concerned that the Houthi takeover of swathes of Yemeni territory is aiding Wilayat al-Yemen's ability to lure greater Sunni support through its highly sectarian and ultra-violent agenda, countering the group's ability to gain further traction likely contributes to Riyadh's evolving relationship with AQAP.

Implications for the West

The Obama Administration has identified AQAP as the world's most dangerous al-Qaeda branch, and the gravest terrorist threat to U.S. national security. In 2000, al-Qaeda orchestrated the attack against the USS Cole, and two years later the group waged a suicide bombing that targeted the French oil tanker M/V Limburg. Both attacks were carried out by individuals who would come to hold prominent roles in AQAP.

Throughout 2008 and 2009, AQY/AQAP attacked Western embassies, in addition to Belgian and Korean tourists in Yemen. On Christmas Day in 2009, an AQAP affiliate unsuccessfully attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound jet, and ten months later the group made another attempt to strike the U.S. homeland by bombing two Chicago-bound cargo planes (the plot was intercepted by Saudi intelligence officials). Additionally, while AQAP's role in the January 2015 Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris remains a source of debate in intelligence circles, the organization claimed responsibility.

In June of this year, Washington officials voiced concern about Humayqani's role in the Geneva talks, underscoring the U.S. and Saudi Arabia's conflicting strategies toward the Yemeni crisis. Although Washington has provided logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis, the U.S. military's direct involvement in Yemen since Riyadh waged Operation Decisive Storm in March has been exclusively striking AQAP targets with Washington's controversial drone program.

Despite Saudi Arabia's official lukewarm endorsement of the Iranian nuclear deal, Riyadh is gravely concerned about the geopolitical implications of a gradual improvement in the West's relationship with Iran. Unsettled by the idea that Tehran will more forcefully assert its influence in the Arab world by providing more support to Iranian-backed paramilitary groups with newly available funds derived from sanctions relief, Saudi Arabia is flexing its muscles in Yemen. Viewing the Houthi insurgents as an Iranian proxy committed to establishing a client state for the Islamic Republic on Saudi Arabia's southern border, officials in Riyadh clearly perceive a graver threat from the Houthis than from Sunni Islamist militias such as AQAP.

From Washington's perspective, the Riyadh-led campaign in Yemen is contributing to chaotic unrest in Yemen that provides fertile ground for the local al-Qaeda branch and creates a magnet for other extremist groups. Having seized control of the Riyan airport and Mukalla (an oil rich city with a major sea port and a population of 300,000) in April, AQAP has emerged as an increasingly influential actor amidst the bloody turmoil and humanitarian crises that have spiraled out of control since the Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen in March. By positioning itself as a disciplined Sunni force capable of effectively countering the Houthi insurgents, AQAP has unquestionably established itself as a de facto partner of the U.S.-backed Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, despite being the primary impetus for Washington's ongoing drone campaign there.

Ties between elements of Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy and global jihadist terror groups are not new. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, questions regarding the costs and benefits of maintaining a strong alliance with Riyadh resulted in spirited debate in the U.S. By having deep economic relations with Western nations and being the world's top crude oil exporter, Riyadh has long used its powerful influence in the Middle East's geopolitical order and international energy markets to foster ties with groups like AQAP with minimal objection from the kingdom's Western allies.

In the case of Yemen, analysts contend that the Obama Administration's support for Riyadh's war against the Houthis has occurred within the context of Washington's efforts to secure Saudi support for the Iranian nuclear agreement, despite U.S. reservations over the kingdom's policies. Paris has been a strong backer of Riyadh's campaign in Yemen, largely due to France's interest in becoming the kingdom's leading arms dealer. Over time, however, Riyadh's de facto alliance with AQAP should raise further questions in the U.S. and France about whether the kingdom is a genuine partner in the global War on Terror or is a direct sponsor of groups affiliated with those who perpetrated the 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo attacks.

In Syria, where Saudi Arabia's support for hardline jihadist militias is fueling tension in Riyadh's relations with Western governments, the means and objectives of the kingdom are increasingly at odds with those of American and European officials. As the U.S. explores diplomatic opportunities with the Houthis in Yemen, and as EU officials begin eyeing Iran as a potential partner in regional security crises, there is a widening gulf between Western and Saudi perceptions about security considerations in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia's Blowback in Yemen?

Beyond implications for Saudi relations with the West, the kingdom is playing a risky high stakes game of poker by incorporating a short-term alliance with AQAP into a larger strategy of countering Iran's alleged hegemonic aims in the Middle East. If history can serve as any guide, groups such as AQAP are unlikely to maintain any loyalty to state or other non-state sponsors that serve as allies of convenience. Riyadh has in the past sponsored jihadist movements in foreign countries--most notably Afghanistan and Pakistan--that later turned their guns on the kingdom. As the conflict in Yemen is extremely fluid, and complicated by the vast array of armed groups with a broad range of objectives and ideologies, the nation's future political landscape is entirely unpredictable. Riyadh is taking a big risk by cooperating with armed groups on its borders that have previously exposed their hostility toward the kingdom and its Arab/Western allies.

Last month U.S. officials and local Yemeni sources reported that AQAP militants were closing in on Aden. According to unconfirmed media reports, al-Qaeda's flag flew over an administrative building with the group patrolling some of the city's neighborhoods. If the al-Qaeda franchise were to seize control of Yemen's second largest city, such a dangerous development would certainly create new security dilemmas for locals already enduring a grave humanitarian crisis. It could also pose a serious threat to international traders if jihadist terrorist groups were to usurp control of both the Yemeni and African sides of the narrow Bab-el-Mandab--one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, linking the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

Saudi Arabia finds its own security further imperiled by Daesh-affiliated cells that have carried out attacks against police officers, Shi'ite mosques, and Western expatriates in recent months, and with the "caliphate" leadership vowing to topple the ruling Al Saud family. Therefore, Riyadh may very well regret having pursued a short-term foreign policy that is creating conditions in Yemen in which AQAP gains the most from the nation's chaotic and ungovernable environment. Saudi Arabia would benefit from having the same long-term orientation toward Sunni extremism as it does toward the global oil landscape.

Giorgio Cafiero is Co-Founder of Gulf State Analytics. Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the book "Managing Country Risk".

CONVERSATIONS