Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Sustained Resurgence in Yemen or Signs of Further Decline?
6 April 2023
In the first two months of 2023, suspected United States drone strikes killed two senior leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen’s Marib governorate. One of the group’s top explosives experts, a Yemeni citizen named Husayn Hadbul (also known as Hassan al-Hadrami), was killed on 30 January. The group’s media chief and leader of the group’s Shura Council, Saudi citizen Hamad al-Tamimi (also known as Abu Abd al-Aziz al-Adnani), was killed on 26 February. These strikes on high-profile AQAP leaders took place amid a resurgence of AQAP activity in Yemen, which started during the United Nations-mediated truce between Houthi and anti-Houthi forces that lasted from April to the beginning of October 2022, and that has informally held to this date.1UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg mediated a truce between the Internationally Recognized Government of Yemen and the de facto Houthi authorities from 2 April to 2 October 2022. An initial two-month truce was renewed twice before the parties failed to agree to a third extension.
The lull in fighting between Houthi and anti-Houthi forces induced by the truce allowed for a broader political and military reconfiguration within the anti-Houthi camp. At the political level, former President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was replaced by an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) to enhance coordination among anti-Houthi forces. Armed militias affiliated with the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and other United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed forces exploited the new situation to gain control over territory in southern Yemen. As part of this territorial expansion, STC forces spearheaded several offensives against AQAP beginning in August 2022, leading to a sudden rise in AQAP activity in 2022 (see graph below).2“AQAP activity” is understood throughout this report as the number of political violence events involving the actor AQAP: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the ACLED dataset. These events include both events that are officially claimed by AQAP, as well as events that are not claimed by the group, but that ACLED researchers assess can be attributed to the group after a careful review process in a complex reporting environment. While some sources refer to anti-Houthi forces affiliated with the Islamist Islah party as AQAP, these events are not coded with the actor AQAP: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the ACLED dataset. However, the nature of this overall increase is disputed, with some analysts arguing that it is a sign of AQAP’s weakness rather than its strength.3Fernando Carvajal, ‘How al-Qaeda is losing control in southern Yemen,’ New Arab, 21 November 2022
In late 2020, ACLED published a report looking at the trajectory and transformation of AQAP from 2015 to 2020 in three distinct phases: AQAP’s expansion (2015-16), its redeployment and infighting with the Islamic State (2017-19), and its retrenchment in al-Bayda governorate (2019-20). The current report draws on this previous work, using the same variables on the group’s geographic outreach and relations with other armed actors. These are used to examine AQAP’s activity from 2021 to the present and identify the drivers behind this activity. It identifies two phases of AQAP activity since the end of 2020: continued retrenchment in al-Bayda governorate (2021-22) – extending the third phase identified in ACLED’s previous report – followed by renewed activity in southern Yemen (2022-23).
The report shows that AQAP has regrouped in its strongholds in the south following its failure to expand to northern Yemen. Most of its interactions now involve STC forces, and interactions between AQAP and Houthi forces have essentially stopped. STC-led offensives and US drone strikes arguably may have significantly impaired AQAP’s operational capabilities, at least in the short term. However, this might pressure the group’s leadership to conduct high-profile attacks to boost troop morale, especially in the context of competition at the helm of al-Qaeda central.4Hussam Radman and Assim al-Sabri, ‘Leadership from Iran: How Al-Qaeda in Yemen Fell Under the Sway of Saif al-Adel,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 28 February 2023
Continued Retrenchment while Engaging Houthi Forces (2021-22)
AQAP started 2021 on the back foot. Following a Houthi offensive launched in August 2020, the group was ousted from its then-stronghold of al-Qayfa in northwestern al-Bayda governorate. It then retreated to the southeastern regions of the governorate. By the end of 2020, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen assessed that AQAP was “perhaps at its weakest.”5UN Security Council, ‘Letter dated 22 January 2021 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council,’ 25 January 2021, p.71 The group’s leader and emir, Khalid Batarfi, was believed to have been arrested during a security operation in al-Mahra governorate in October 2020,6UN Security Council, ‘Letter dated 21 January 2021 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,’ 3 February 2021, p.8 though he later appeared to be free from custody.7Hussam Radman, ‘Myth of Batarfi’s Arrest Plays into Weakened AQAP Narrative,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 18 March 2021 The group was also plagued by internal strife and dissent that led some members to defect.8Abdelrazzaq al-Jamal, ‘Al-Qaeda’s Decline in Yemen: An Abandonment of Ideology Amid a Crisis of Leadership,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 29 September 2021
Most of AQAP’s media content at the onset of 2021 was old but recycled and presented as new,9Twitter @Dr_E_Kendall, 12 January 2021; Twitter @Dr_E_Kendall, 1 February 2021; Twitter @Dr_E_Kendall, 4 February 2021 as the group attempted to remain relevant following its major territorial losses in 2020. The retrenchment experienced by AQAP since late 2019 continued in 2021, both in terms of activity levels and the geographic outreach of the group. 2021 saw the lowest levels of AQAP activity in Yemen since the beginning of ACLED coverage in 2015. Political violence events and reported fatalities involving AQAP in 2021 decreased by around 40% and 30%, respectively, compared to 2020, which had previously been the year with the least events and reported fatalities.
In 2021, around 60% of all AQAP activity remained in al-Bayda, a level similar to those recorded in both 2020 and 2019. However, as the group was ousted from al-Qayfa region in the northwestern districts of the governorate in 2020, its activity in 2021 was largely limited to the districts of al-Sawmaa, Dhi Naim, and Mukayras in the southeast, near the border with Abyan and Shabwa governorates (see maps below). Further attesting to AQAP’s state of weakness in 2021, ACLED records AQAP activity in only four governorates throughout the entire year – the smallest geographical area of operation for AQAP between 2015 and 2022.
Shrinking Area of AQAP Activity 2020-21
Over half of all AQAP activity in 2021 involved interactions with Houthi forces (see maps above), which gained control over the entire al-Bayda governorate in September 2021 following an unsuccessful offensive by Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) forces. Pockets of militants remained in the governorate, however, with AQAP continuing to claim operations against Houthi forces after the Houthi takeover. This played into the Houthis’ hands, after they framed their offensive in al-Bayda as an operation targeting AQAP and Islamic State militants.10Twitter @army21ye, 13 July 2021
Despite continued activity in al-Bayda, AQAP militants seem to have mostly retreated in neighboring Abyan and Shabwa governorates following the Houthi takeover. The same month Houthi forces announced that they had taken control over the governorate, there were reports of AQAP militants being targeted by local forces and suspected US drone strikes in Abyan and Shabwa governorates as they were fleeing al-Bayda.11Al Ayyam, ‘Rabiz tribes confront al-Qaeda elements fleeing from al-Bayda,’ 18 September 2021; Twitter @aalnaasi, 16 September 2021 Abyan and Shabwa represent historic strongholds for AQAP. Some militants had already retreated to the two southern governorates after the Houthi offensive in northwestern al-Bayda in August 2020.12UN Security Council, ‘Letter dated 21 January 2021 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,’ 3 February 2021, p.8 In the first months of 2021, tribal leaders claimed that these redeployments continued, with AQAP militants regrouping in Mudiya and al-Mahfad districts of Abyan.13Ali Mahmood, ‘Al Qaeda shows signs of resurgence in Yemen,’ The National, 10 April 2021 However, these successive redeployments did not translate into an uptick in AQAP activity in southern Yemen. From September 2021 to May 2022, most of AQAP’s activity remained concentrated in al-Bayda.
In November 2021, AQAP released a two-part interview with its leader Batarfi, in which he acknowledged the challenges facing the group, including the failure to fight Houthi forces, the decline in operations, and its financial troubles.14Twitter @NihadJariri, 11 November 2021; Twitter @NihadJariri, 20 November 2021 Mirroring the words of the UN report from almost a year before, British expert Elisabeth Kendall argued in late 2021 that AQAP appeared “weaker than at almost any point since [its creation in] 2009.”15Elisabeth Kendall, ‘Where is AQAP Now?,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 21 October 2021 These challenges continued into 2022, and translated into reduced activity for most of the year.
Renewed Activity Engaging STC Forces in Southern Yemen (2022-23)
Although most AQAP activity remained focused on efforts against Houthi forces in al-Bayda at the start of 2022, the group’s shift toward southern Yemen manifested in two high-profile operations in Abyan. In February, unidentified gunmen kidnapped five UN employees traveling in the governorate, including the country director for the UN Department of Safety and Security. Months later, a video released by AQAP showed one of the hostages held captive by the group. In March, militants targeted the convoy of a prominent commander of the STC Security Belt Forces in the city of Jaar, with a bomb-laden vehicle and two suicide bombers. The latter operation constituted the first use of suicide bombers by the group in years. Moreover, the use of suicide bombers by AQAP has overwhelmingly taken place in southern Yemen since 2015, with nearly all instances since 2017 targeting UAE-backed forces.
These incidents acted as precursors to the shift in AQAP’s activity toward southern Yemen that unfolded throughout the year. Shortly after the start of the UN-mediated truce between the IRG and the de facto Houthi authorities in April, a growing number of reports emerged of AQAP militants deploying in Abyan and Shabwa governorates (for more on the impacts of the truce, see this ACLED report).16Twitter @aalnaasi, 12 April 2022; Khabar News Agency, ‘Al-Qaeda is spreading again and its movements in Abyan,’ 15 April 2021; Twitter @aalnaasi, 18 April 2022 In Hadramawt, AQAP orchestrated a jailbreak that liberated at least 10 militants from Sayun central prison on 13 April.17Ahmed al-Haj, ‘Ten al-Qaida inmates escape from prison in eastern Yemen,’ Associated Press, 15 April 2022 There were also reports of AQAP deploying in al-Dali governorate,18Yemen Press Agency, ‘Large deployment of elements of “al-Qaeda organization” in al-Dali,’ 21 June 2021 where militants killed two prominent Security Belt Forces commanders in May.
While the truce largely succeeded in reducing fighting between Houthi and IRG forces, it also paved the way for political and military reconfiguration within the anti-Houthi camp that would ultimately lead to increased AQAP activity (for more on political violence during the truce, see this ACLED report). With former President Hadi out of the picture, the influence of the pro-unity Islah party – the STC’s archrival – began to wane in southern Yemen. In this context, the STC deployed in Abyan and Shabwa in August 2022 to regain control of the governorates it had lost to pro-Hadi and Islah-affiliated forces in 2020 and 2019, respectively. In Abyan, the STC deployment to regain control over the governorate came under the official name of Operation Arrows of the East to target “terrorist groups.”19South 24, ‘”Eastern Arrows” military operation in Abyan,’ 23 August 2022
These counterterrorism operations began in late August. Under the command of Brigadier General Mukhtar al-Nubi, a coalition of STC forces comprising the Security Belt Forces, Support and Reinforcement Brigades, and Saiqa Brigades advanced throughout Abyan and peacefully established control over its districts after reaching agreements with other IRG forces in the governorate. However, on 6 September, AQAP reacted to this deployment by carrying out an attack on a checkpoint in Ahwar district that resulted in at least 27 reported fatalities – one of its deadliest operations since January 2015. This was the first of an unprecedented string of attacks against STC forces in Abyan, as AQAP announced its own Operation Arrows of Righteousness.20AQAP released a written statement announcing its Operation Arrows of Righteousness to counter the “Emirati-Zionist project” in southern Yemen on its official al-Malahem website on 13 September 2023. This resulted in 53 operational claims by AQAP from September to March 2023, of which 13 were made in September alone. ACLED monitors primary sources of information on armed group activity, including their official channels and accounts, but does not directly link to such sources in order to minimize the risk of amplification. Along with a UAE-backed offensive against AQAP in al-Musaynia region in Shabwa, this resulted in September 2022 being one of the most active months for AQAP since January 2015.
Following this spike in events, AQAP activity gradually decreased for the rest of 2022, while still remaining at high levels compared to 2021 and 2020. Overall, AQAP activity doubled from 2021 to 2022, and surpassed the levels of 2020. This increase caused reported fatalities from AQAP activity to almost triple from 2021 to 2022, reaching levels similar to those of 2019, during the jihadi infighting between AQAP and the Islamic State in Yemen. Most of these were the result of violence initiated by AQAP. The gradual decrease recorded since September 2022 could, however, indicate that the group does not possess the necessary capabilities to sustain a long period of increased activity.
In 2022, AQAP gradually redirected its activities toward Yemen’s southern governorates. More than 70% of the group’s activity in 2022 took place in Abyan and Shabwa (see maps below). Since June 2022, no violent interaction has been recorded between Houthi forces and AQAP. This could be the materialization of a possible strategic shift taking place inside the group since 2020, whereby AQAP’s main targets would now be Western states and their regional and Yemeni allies, rather than Houthi forces.21Hussam Radman and Assim al-Sabri, ‘Leadership from Iran: How Al-Qaeda in Yemen Fell Under the Sway of Saif al-Adel,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 28 February 2023 The strategic change could be the result of AQAP falling under the increasing influence of Sayf al-Adl, an Egyptian citizen who is based in Iran and has ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the force tasked with defending the Islamic Republic. Al-Adl is also alleged to have succeeded Ayman al-Zawahiri at the head of al-Qaeda central, according to a UN report published in February 2023.22UN Security Council, ‘Letter dated 13 February 2023 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,’ 13 February 2023
Shifting Focus of AQAP on STC in Southern Yemen 2021-22
AQAP’s geographic shift has been carried into 2023, with nearly all of the group’s activity in the first three months of the year targeting STC forces in Abyan governorate. Despite an increase in media content at the onset of the new year,23Twitter @Dr_E_Kendall, 8 January 2023 AQAP activity has continued to steadily decrease in 2023. The release of two speeches by AQAP emir Batarfi, in addition to a rare video appearance of the group’s second in command, Shabwani-born Saad al-Awlaqi,24Daniele Garofalo, ‘Seeking tribal support. The new video of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,’ 18 February 2023 can be interpreted as attesting to the group’s struggles. Amid a decrease in operational claims, their publication points to AQAP leadership’s attempts to remain relevant. In March 2023, the group openly addressed the issue of spies in its ranks,25AQAP released an audio statement warning spies inside the group on its official al-Malahem website on 24 March 2023. ACLED monitors primary sources of information on armed group activity, including their official channels and accounts, but does not directly link to such sources in order to minimize the risk of amplification. which has been a major issue in the group over previous years. These struggles are likely further compounded by US drone strikes on some of the group’s most senior leaders.
What is the future of AQAP in Yemen?
After years of retrenchment during which AQAP’s activity mostly consisted of the limited targeting of Houthi forces in al-Bayda governorate, there was a significant surge in AQAP activity in late 2022. The surge was accompanied by a strategic and geographic shift from targeting Houthi forces in al-Bayda to targeting STC forces in southern Yemen. While this resurgence in AQAP activity acted as a reminder of the serious threat with significant operational capabilities AQAP has in Yemen, what this means for the group’s future is not as straightforward. As a UN report noted, the recent resurgence in AQAP activity may be “indicative of the tendency of [the group] to intensify efforts under pressure” rather than a sudden change in strategy.26UN Security Council, ‘Letter dated 13 February 2023 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,’ 13 February 2023, p.13 However, AQAP has also been known to retreat under pressure rather than intensify efforts – including to avoid straining relations with tribes that have accepted its presence in their territory.27Abdelrazzaq al-Jamal, ‘Al-Qaeda’s Decline in Yemen: An Abandonment of Ideology Amid a Crisis of Leadership,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 29 September 2021 The same UN report characterizes AQAP’s activity in the southern governorates as indicating the “offensive ambitions” of the group.28UN Security Council, ‘Letter dated 13 February 2023 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,’ 13 February 2023, p.13
Regardless of the group’s strategy, the recent surge in activity might have impaired its operational capabilities, at least in the short term, including by depleting its IED stocks. After October 2022 – when ACLED records the highest level of IED attacks since January 2015 – attacks have been steadily decreasing. Successful offensives by STC forces in the group’s historical strongholds in southern Yemen might also deal AQAP a considerable and durable blow. In the context of a crisis in both leadership and ideology affecting the group since 2015,29Abdelrazzaq al-Jamal, ‘Al-Qaeda’s Decline in Yemen: An Abandonment of Ideology Amid a Crisis of Leadership,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 29 September 2021 the STC-led offensives will only continue to deepen the crisis in confidence of the group while putting further strain on Batarfi. Arguably, these offensives have exacerbated a rift between the Saudi-born leader Batarfi and his Yemeni deputy al-Awlaqi since April 2022 after AQAP militants in Shabwa accused Batarfi of isolating them and preventing them from targeting Houthi forces.30Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, ‘Frontlines Remain Relatively Calm Despite Houthi Attacks Against Southern Ports – The Yemen Review, November 2022,’ 16 December 2022
Moreover, although the US has mostly disengaged from drone operations in Yemen since 2019, it carried out two drone strikes on senior AQAP leaders in the first two months of 2023. Continued strikes on AQAP’s leadership could further affect an already eroding internal cohesion, as well as deter potential recruits from joining the group. The increased use of new technology that might lead to fewer indirect killings of civilians, or ‘collateral damage’ – like the so-called ‘ninja’ missile – will also prevent US efforts from backfiring.31The Hellfire R9X ‘ninja’ missile contains no explosive charge and ensures the destruction of its target with minimal collateral damage by deploying large blades on its sides just before impact, instead of creating an uncontrollable explosion at the point of impact. See Sandra Favier, ‘Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death: What is the Hellfire R9X missile that the Americans purportedly used?,’ Le Monde, 3 August 2022
However, as reminded by Kendall, AQAP has “a habit of surviving,” and despite losses and fragmentation, “jihadi ideology” is never fully defeated.32Elisabeth Kendall, ‘Where is AQAP Now?,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 21 October 2021 To further boost troop morale and as a reminder of the relevance of the group and its cause, emir Batarfi could attempt some high-profile operations in southern cities where it has sleeper cells like Aden or al-Mukalla, perhaps even against Saudi-led coalition or Western targets. The suspected emir of al-Qaeda central Sayf al-Adl might also want to use AQAP to conduct high-profile operations to assert his leadership over the global franchise.33Hussam Radman and Assim al-Sabri, ‘Leadership from Iran: How Al-Qaeda in Yemen Fell Under the Sway of Saif al-Adel,’ Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 28 February 2023 An attack threatening maritime security is possible, with AQAP allegedly seeking to improve its maritime operations capacities in 2022.34UN Security Council, ‘Letter dated 11 July 2022 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Council,’ 15 July 2022, p.13
The counter-militancy campaign waged by STC forces might also play into AQAP’s hands if it does not sufficiently account for local sensitivities. In January 2023, the local council of Mudiya district in Abyan issued a communiqué to denounce human rights violations perpetrated by STC forces, after the latter besieged a village and clashed with local tribesmen.35Aden al-Ghad, ‘The local council of Mudiya district condemns the escalation of violence and the violation of human rights,’ 25 January 2023 AQAP was quick to capitalize on local resentments and released a rare video of al-Awlaqi accusing the UAE of humiliating locals and calling on tribesmen to join the group’s fight.36Site Intelligence Group ‘High-ranking AQAP Commander Urges Tribesmen in Abyan and Shabwa Reject UAE, Embrace Jihad,’ 13 February 2023
Finally, alleged increased tensions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia – as both pursue different end goals in Yemen despite being allied in the anti-Houthi coalition since 2015 – could destabilize an already fragile balance of power in southern Yemen. Notably, increased Saudi re-engagement in southern Yemen might encroach on the UAE’s sphere of influence and divert attention away from counter-AQAP efforts.37Twitter @Alsakaniali, 3 March 2023 While UAE-backed forces have typically spearheaded the fight against militant activities in southern Yemen, this could be exploited by AQAP to regroup and rebuild.
Visuals in this report were produced by Ana Marco.