Al-Qa'ida in Yemen: Situation Update and Recommendations for Policy Makers

It has now become apparent that the airline bomb suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen by Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Neither the threat of this attack nor the danger posed by the group to Western interests should be exaggerated.

By Alistair Harris and Michael Page for

Twenty three year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's decision to ignite explosive powder he had concealed in his underwear on a flight landing in Detroit has catapulted Yemen once again onto the headlines of Western newspapers and think-tank reports, thanks to his apparent connection to the militant group Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It also provoked US President Barack Obama to vow that AQAP 'will be held to account' and prompted CENTCOM Commander General Petraeus to undertake an immediate trip to meet with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, during which he announced US intentions to double security aid to Yemen. By all appearances, the US is preparing to open a new front in its operations against Al-Qa'ida and its regional affiliates.  

However, reliance on the sorts of military strikes which have already produced dozens of civilian casualties is likely to drive radicalisation and recruitment into AQAP rather than diminish the organisation's capabilities.  This is a lesson identified in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Recent press reporting that the Yemeni government has been 'consulted' about the creation of a new US and UK funded anti-terrorism unit also carries considerable risk.  Such initiatives can reinforce the AQAP narrative that Saleh and his security forces are illegitimate - pawns in a Western power play.  The deliberate targeting of the Yemeni security forces by AQAP in recent months is designed to tap into a wider Yemeni grievance narrative which is fuelled by allegations of security forces' excesses in counter-terrorism operations, the conduct of the Houthi conflict in the North, and in facing the southern secessionists.  Targeted intelligence-led anti-terrorism operations have a key role to play in confronting the challenge posed by AQAP, but they are not the solution to a threat that has evolved from a national concern to a regional threat and now an emerging international one.

The Yemeni state is a weak political entity that has never been able to consolidate itself effectively.  Addressing the reasons behind this state failure, especially at the community level, promises a more fruitful counter-terrorism strategy than one consisting solely of kinetic operations and military assistance. A regional approach and a significant increase in development assistance must be central components of the plan to address threats emerging from Yemen.

Recent Events

Two series of interrelated events have occurred since late December 2009 involving the US, the Yemeni government, and AQAP. On 17 December, airstrikes backed by US 'firepower, intelligence, and other support' targeted AQAP militants in the governorate of Abyan in the south of the country. Although some militants were killed, local officials reported that nearly fifty civilians also died, leading to large protests of several thousand people. A second set of airstrikes on 24 December carried out by Yemeni fighter jets hit targets in several areas of the country, including an area where suspected AQAP leaders were thought to be meeting with Yemeni-American radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. However, it was later confirmed that al-Awlaki was still alive, along with other targeted AQAP members. Follow-up raids by Yemeni security forces have arrested or killed other suspected AQAP militants.

Concurrently, Abdulmutallab boarded a plane in Amsterdam on 25 December headed to Detroit carrying explosives hidden in his underwear. He attempted to ignite the device during the plane's landing before being stopped by other passengers. It is alleged AQAP trained Abdulmutallab last summer while he was visiting Yemen under the pretext of Arabic language classes, and a recent AQAP statement claimed 'direct coordination' in the bombing attempt.[1] In the same message, AQAP also encouraged readers to 'kill every Crusader who works in [Western] embassies or elsewhere' in the Arabian Peninsula.[2]

Overestimating the Danger of AQAP

The attempted attack over US soil reveals the organisational competence of AQAP and their ability to conduct attacks outside the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, it signals the danger Yemen represents as a magnet for disaffected foreign Muslims who view the country as an 'ideal' Islamic society. These individuals are vulnerable to radicalisation through the influence of Salafi/Wahhabi and jihadi currents present in the country. Neverthelesss, neither the threat of this attack nor the danger posed by AQAP to Western interests should be exaggerated. The attempt was a terrorist attack not only in the sense that it targeted civilians, but also in that it instilled fear in Western governments and populations far out of proportion to the actual threat.[3] AQAP, according to most analysts, does not number more than a few hundred individuals, and most of these jihadists are hiding in remote areas of Yemen far removed from Western targets.

Additionally, Yemeni political opposition groups and the leadership of several important tribes have condemned AQAP and emphatically distanced themselves from the group's activities. For example, Sheikh Naji Bin Abdul Aziz al-Shayef, the leader of the Bakeel tribe, recently stated,

The tribes of the Bakeel, whose members number around seven million, stand together against the so-called Al-Qaeda in Yemen and its criminal elements, and any loyal citizen of Yemen must firmly reject anything that threatens the security of Yemen and Yemenis and the peace of neighbouring countries...

As Sarah Phillips has argued, AQAP and tribal groups have significantly different interests in Yemen.

Balancing Pursue and Prevent Initiatives [4]

Civilian casualties in air strikes and heavy handed counter-terrorism raids are likely to expand AQAP's popularity among the local population to the point that, perversely, AQAP does in fact become a significant threat. AQAP is already using the recent US strikes, which it claims killed 'tens of Muslim women and children and also entire families' as a chance to reinforce its narrative of a global war between Islam and the West. These narratives are critical to processes of mobilisation, radicalisation and recruitment, as they foster not only atavistic feelings of a 'hardened' group identity but also a desire for revenge that propels an individual to carry out violent acts.[5] Additionally, AQAP is using these actions to appeal to tribes to join its cause. In a separate statement promising revenge for the recent airstrikes, AQAP wrote,

And lastly, we call upon the proud tribes of Yemen-people of support and victory-and the people of the Arabian Peninsula, to face the crusader campaign and their collaborators on the peninsula of Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) through attacking their military bases, intelligence embassies, and their fleets that exist on the water and land of the Arabian Peninsula; until we stop the continuous massacres on the Muslim countries.

AQAP has also previously emphasised the predatory conduct of the Yemeni security services, to which the US has publicly announced a new aid package for training and equipment of over $70 million over the next eighteen months. Discussing the use of oil wealth that rarely benefits the people, one AQAP member stated,

The majority goes to Western oil companies. Part goes into the pockets of subcontractors, and another part is spent paying the salaries and expenses of the armed security forces occupying the country and oppressing the people, including the people of Marib, Shabwah, and Hadramawt. They, themselves [the Yemeni people], are paying the price of their own oppression![6]

The unpopularity of the security forces is also evident among the larger population. In a 2008 USAID study on Yemeni youth, several individuals identified the security forces and the prison system as a factor in driving an individual towards violence. One individual stated, 'Prisons and juvenile centers are supposed to rehabilitate the youth. What happens is the opposite. They get abused and they come out of jail even more aggressive and more violent'.[7] Therefore, Western support for Yemeni security forces may strengthen the resonance of AQAP's narrative among the population.

Targeting Development Aid in Yemen to Weaken AQAP

The fortunes of AQAP and other militant groups are directly correlated with community-level dynamics and responsiveness to locally-expressed needs. Especially in a country of approximately 135,000 villages and settlements, the inability of most researchers, diplomats or humanitarian personnel to leave the confines of Sana'a has impacted heavily on the ability of programmes to address community needs, empower local governance structures, and promote local resiliency against processes of radicalisation.[8]

The conference called by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 28 January will discuss the very considerable challenge of addressing radicalisation in Yemen.  Whilst this is a welcome acknowledgement of the centrality of counter-radicalisation to the wider counter-terrorism debate, delegates should also be encouraged to:

a.  Acknowledge that this is a regional, geo-strategic issue.  Yemen is part of an arc of instability and solutions to its systemic problems must involve Arab and African partners.

b.  Yemen requires a comprehensive approach.  A dependence solely on security force assistance and targeted counter-terrorism operations will prove counter-productive.

c.  Whilst attempting to take a holistic approach, it is essential to disaggregate the threats emerging from the differing security challenges in Yemen. Aggregating all those who oppose the Yemeni government or Western policies as terrorists is a mistake.  It took several years for militaries to learn the lesson that not all Sunni insurgents in Iraq were members of Al-Qa'ida and that the Taliban are not synonymous with Al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan. The same mistake should not be made when considering AQAP and other armed actors in Yemen.

d.  Radicalisation in Yemen is no longer just a problem for Yemen.  Significant numbers of non-Yemenis like Abdulmutallab are travelling to Yemen, resulting in an increased risk of radicalisation and of the subsequent threat of terrorist attacks outside Yemen.   Millions of US dollars spent in development assistance in countries like Yemen may prove more effective than billions of dollars of additional defence and homeland security expenditure.  Prioritising development is not a soft option, nor merely a good thing to do - it is an act of enlightened self-interest.

Alistair Harris is an Associate Fellow of RUSI and the Director of research consultancy, Pursue Ltd.  Michael Page is a research associate at Pursue Ltd.



1. Anon. (December 2009), ''amaliyat al-akh al-mujahid 'umar al-farouq al-nijiri fi rad al-'adwan al-amiriki 'ala al-yaman [The operation of the mujahid 'umar al-farouq the Nigerian in response to the American aggression on Yemen]', al-Fajr Media Center; Erlanger (1 January 2009) The New York Times.

2. Anon. Op. Cit.

3. Paul Wilkinson (2006), Terrorism Versus Democracy; The Liberal State Response. (London: Routledge).

4. The aim of the UK CONTEST strategy is to 'reduce the risk [the UK] faces from international terrorism so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence'. The concept of Prevent refers to the UK policies designed to 'prevent people from becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism', while Pursue policies are those that stop terrorist attacks.

5. Stathis N. Kalyvas (2006), The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 58-61.

6. Talib al-Hayqa'a (June 2009), 'Barakat al-Hukm Bima Anzala Allah [The Blessing of Ruling according to God's Revelations]', Sada al-Malahim 10, 27.

7. USAID (2008), Yemen Cross-Sectoral Youth Assessment (Washington D.C.: USAID), 35.

8. Christopher Boucek (2009), Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) 10.


Alistair Harris OBE

Associate Fellow

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