Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged in January 2009 through a union of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda, but jihadist antecedents in the region date back to the early 1990s when thousands of mujahedeen returned home from fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Headquartered in Yemen, AQAP has proven an ability to mobilize Muslims in the West such as Nidal Malik Hasan, responsible for killing 13 at the U.S. Army's Fort Hood base in November 2009; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2009 Christmas day bomber; and Faisal Shahzad, who attempted the 2010 Times Square bombing.
However, the group's capacity to produce English-language propaganda was significantly degraded in September 2011 with the U.S. drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric. President Barack Obama has described AQAP as "al Qaeda's most active operational affiliate," echoing an acknowledgment from U.S. counterterrorism officials that the threat from AQAP has supplanted that of the al Qaeda core (NYT).
Months of political unrest in Yemen, including a popular effort to unseat longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have strained U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism cooperation and called into question U.S. policy toward the fragile Gulf state. In May 2011, Washington called for Saleh to step down, but the Obama administration is loath to get drawn into a conflict that includes, in the words of one U.S. official, a "veritable stew" of warring tribal forces and rival military factions (WashPost). Meanwhile, the United States continues to expand its controversial campaign of targeted killings, and is constructing a secret network of drone bases (WashPost) in the region to kill top AQAP suspects in Yemen.
A Legacy of Jihad
Yemen has long had "powerful Islamist and jihadist movements" (CNN), notes Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor at London University."There's a reason why Yemenis in Guantanamo make up the largest core contingent; there's a reason why so many Yemenis have gone to Iraq," adds Barak Barfi, a research fellow with the New America Foundation."There is a fertile radical environment."
In the late 1980s, the Saleh regime helped incubate jihad in what was then North Yemen, welcoming home thousands of nationals who had left to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many of these jihadists returned to take up arms against the secular, socialist government in then-South Yemen. Some of them were eventually integrated into the Saleh regime, while others were deployed in the post-unification years to battle secessionist forces in the south. These fighters were joined by some Arab veterans of the Afghan war who were denied reentry into their own countries by governments worried about integrating battle-hardened fighters into society. Osama bin Laden was foremost among these veterans advocating for Yemen's central role in global jihad. A corps of jihadists who had trained under bin Laden in Afghanistan formed the militant group known as Islamic Jihad in Yemen (1990-1994), one of several jihadist predecessors to AQAP. Others such groups include the Army of Aden Abyan (1994-1998), and al Qaeda in Yemen or AQY (1998-2003).
In October 2000, a skiff piloted by two members of AQY exploded several hundred pounds of explosives into the hull of the USS Cole that was moored in the port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. servicemen. Two years later, another suicide bombing orchestrated by AQY on the French oil tanker M/V Limburg (LATimes) further highlighted the threat to Western interests in the region. Several of the militants involved in the Limburg plot would eventually hold top leadership positions in AQAP.
Following the Cole bombing and the al Qaeda-led attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration pushed the Saleh government to begin carrying out aggressive counterterrorism operations against AQY, including allowing U.S. Special Forces and intelligence personnel in country to aid the campaign. A U.S. drone strike in 2002, the first such U.S. operation in the region, killed AQY's leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi (BBC); and by the end of 2003 al-Qaeda in Yemen faced a precipitous decline. However, most experts believe Saleh's "commitment to combating extremism is mercurial," notes a Congressional Research Service report. Reports of several instances of militant releases or "escapes" added to speculation that Saleh was playing a double game (Australian).
In February 2006, 23 convicted terrorists escaped from a high-security prison in Sanaa. The jailbreak marked a critical turning point for al-Qaeda in the region, as many of the escapees worked to "resurrect al Qaeda from the ashes" (PDF) and launch a fresh campaign of attacks against a variety of targets.
In late 2008, a successful crackdown by the Saudi government led remnants of the local al Qaeda franchise to flee across the border and unite with a resurgent jihad in Yemen. By 2009, the two branches formally merged under the banner of AQAP (BBC). "The merger effectively transformed al Qaeda from a local chapter to a regional franchise," says Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, "and moved it one step closer toward becoming a group capable of global action."
The primary goals of AQAP are consistent with the principles of militant jihad, which aims to purge Muslim countries of Western influence and replace secular "apostate" governments with fundamentalist Islamic regimes operating under sharia law.
AQAP has claimed responsibility for numerous other attacks in the region since 2006. These have included the failed August 2009 assassination attempt (NYT) on Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef; an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in 2008; attacks on Italian and British embassies; suicide bombings (CNN) of Korean tourists in March 2009 and Belgian tourists in January 2008; four oil pipeline bombings; attacks on several oil facilities; and the bombing of a Japanese oil tanker (CBC) in April 2008.
Realizing the strength of AQAP recruitment campaigns, in January 2010, the Obama administration announced it would suspend the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen. Yemenis account for 116 of the 779 inmates that have been detained at Guantanamo Bay (NYT) -- behind only Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
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