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Al Qaeda in Yemen: Profile

Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)


Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the main militant organization in Yemen and one of the most aggressive Al Qaeda’s branches. AQAP has been linked to attacks on US targets, including the 2008 bombing of the US embassy in Sana’a.

See an overview of other Al Qaeda branches in the Middle East


Malahem Media Foundation

Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, has provided Al Qaeda with a perfect haven: a weak state, widespread resentment of US policies in the region, a vast terrain with fiercely independent tribal areas, a crumbling economy, and a large pool of unemployed young men susceptible to radical ideologies.

AQAP is based in the isolated tribal areas of Yemen’s south and east, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. It has no links to Yemen’s moderate Islamist parties, but it has had some limited success in embedding itself in marginalized local communities ignored by the central government in the capital Sana’a.

Leadership & Organization

In the early 1990s, local veterans of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan returned home to Yemen. Subsequent attempts at creating nascent Al Qaeda chapters all failed, as the authoritarian government of President Ali Abdullah al-Saleh either repressed or co-opted the militants, who also had little luck in mobilizing the wider population.

  • AQAP: Since 2003, a more cohesive group of terrorist cells managed to establish safe havens in Yemen’s south-east, attracting hundreds of Yemeni and Saudi militants fleeing security forces elsewhere. In 2009, Saudi and Yemeni branches officially merged under the AQAP umbrella. This experienced core of Al Qaeda operatives is led by Nasir al-Wahayshi, bin Laden’s former secretary.

  • Ansar al-Sharia: A separate coalition of loosely connected militant units grew out of AQAP around 2010. Believed to be under the command of Abu Hamza al-Murqoshi, Ansar al-Sharia has been recruiting disaffected local youth, creating highly-motivated units intent on seizing territory from the Yemeni state.
Read False Foundations: A study of AQAP's origins by the West Point Center For Combating Terrorism

Goals & Strategy

AQAP’s declared goal is to overthrow Yemeni and Saudi governments and replace them with a fundamentalist Islamist state. This local agenda is coupled with Al Qaeda’s vision of a global jihad, which makes attacks on US targets in Arabian peninsula and abroad a central element of AQAP’s ideological program.

  • Funding: Criminal activities such as kidnappings and drug trade, and reportedly donations from sympathetic private individuals in Saudi Arabia.

  • Terror campaign: Suicide bombings and assassinations targeting government officials, military checkpoints and foreigners. AQAP intensified its campaign of violence in 2009 when al-Wahayshi declared that “the time for the rule of Islam has come so that you could bask in the justice and tolerance it brings”.

  • Armed insurgency: In 2011, new units affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia shifted from AQAP's terror tactics to frontal attacks on Yemeni forces. The group seized whole towns and established Islamic emirates – parallel governments based on a strict interpretations of Sharia, Islamic law. Ansar al-Sharia began to look more like the Afghan Taliban, an armed insurgency, rather than a narrow circle of terrorist operatives.
Read The Guardian's report on how AQAP is winning hearts and minds in Yemen's south.

Biggest Attacks

Bomb attack in the capital Sana’a killed almost 100 soldiers in May 2012. In the same month, an attempt to bomb a US-bound plane was thwarted.

Recent Activities

Between 2011 and 2012, Ansar al-Sharia established three Islamic emirates in the south-eastern provinces of Shabwa and Abyan, garnering a measure of local support through provision of water, electricity and judicial services. This success was greatly facilitated by divisions in Yemen's military, linked to Arab Spring protests in Yemen and eventual resignation of President Saleh in October 2011.

An offensive by the Yemeni army recovered most of the territory by July 2012, but security forces and local government officials remain under constant threat of attack.

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