Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula at a crossroads in Yemen

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The civil war in Yemen and Saudi-led intervention against the Houthi rebels there have undermined efforts to negotiate a political settlement and are making the country’s already-disastrous humanitarian situation even worse. The chaos, however, seems to have produced one clear winner:
al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al-Qaida affiliate with the closest relationship to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the one U.S. officials have long labeled the most dangerous offshoot of the core organization.

AQAP is at a crossroads. The civil war and Saudi intervention offer it many opportunities, but they also pose many pitfalls and could dramatically reorient the organization in ways it has long sought to avoid.

What separates AQAP from other al-Qaida affiliates is its willingness to strike outside Yemen and the regional theater. Since the group formed in 2009, most of its attacks have focused on the Yemeni government. However, U.S. officials have tied it to sophisticated attempts to bomb U.S. airliners in 2009 and 2010, and the group produces Inspire, a stylish English-language online magazine that regularly features anti-Western propaganda, including calls for lone wolves to attack in the United States and instructions for how to make or acquire the weapons to do so. AQAP also took credit for the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, and the attackers trained with the group in Yemen. The group appeared to suffer setbacks in 2012 when Yemeni government forces under President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had recently taken power from Ali Abdullah Saleh, retook several cities and other areas that had served as AQAP strongholds. Similarly, an active U.S. drone campaign kept the group on the run.

Now that Hadi’s government has fallen and civil war has engulfed much of the country, counterterrorism efforts against AQAP have eased. U.S. officials rightly fear that the group will enjoy greater freedom of action: Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned recently that “the pressure has been taken off AQAP.” As The Washington Post reported, the United States pulled its military and intelligence personnel from the country as violence escalated, and our Yemeni counterterrorism partners are now in disarray. The unrelenting torrent of drone strikes that wreaked havoc on the group’s ability to operate has now dwindled to a slow trickle: Reuters reports that the strike last Sunday that killed a top AQAP cleric “was the first reported drone strike against the powerful Yemeni branch of the global militant group since the United States evacuated about 100 special forces troops advising Yemeni forces last month.”

AQAP is making the most of the reversal of fortune. Earlier this month, AQAP conducted a massive prison break freeing many fighters and at least one senior leader, and subsequently took control of the city of Mukalla where the prison is located. The group seized control of the checkpoints at all five entrances to the city as well as the governor’s palace, the central bank, a military base, and several other key local government facilities. This past Thursday, AQAP struck again, taking control of a major airport, the region’s main military base, and an oil terminal on the coast of the Arabian Sea. And on Friday, the group reportedly captured a massive weapons depot, seizing dozens of tanks, Katyusha rocket launchers, and small arms from Yemeni government forces.

But it’s not necessarily springtime for AQAP. The group is now operating amidst an all-out civil war. Although we think of civil wars providing a safe haven for terrorists, in reality war zones are dangerous for terrorists as well as civilians. The warring factions are armed and large, and it will be hard for AQAP to stay neutral, as it must protect its supporters and guard its own areas of operations. Perhaps the biggest challenge for AQAP is the growth of the Islamic State and its potential influence among Yemeni jihadis. How much support the Islamic State enjoys in Yemen is unclear, but the movement’s prominent role in Iraq and Syria and impressive propaganda have excited jihadists around the world, while its embrace of sectarianism seems well-suited for the anti-Houthi struggle in Yemen. Houthis are Shi`iite Muslims of the Zaydi sect. Although the Zaydis are often seen as doctrinally closer to Sunni Islam than the Twelver Shi`ism of Iran, in today’s environment no one seems to care. In March, the Islamic State bombed Zaydi mosques in Yemen, helping transform the civil war into a broader sectarian conflict. This challenge will put pressure on AQAP to join the sectarian struggle against the Houthi “apostates” or risk been seen as irrelevant.

However, the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri may constrain AQAP from engaging in Islamic State-style sectarian attacks and extreme violence, as has been the case with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s official affiliate in the Syrian civil war. Zawahiri has long urged his affiliates to avoid attacks against Shi`iite Muslims and the brutal treatment of civilians in areas under the jihadists’ control—indeed, it was partly his disapproval of such tactics that led him to disavow the Islamic State. And despite the fierce competition between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra for recruits and resources in Syria, thus far Jabhat al-Nusra has resisted the temptation to up the ante against the Shi`a and the civilian population. If AQAP chooses to go this route in Yemen—and its statement emphatically denying involvement in the bombing of the Zaydi mosques by the Islamic State and expressly stating that AQAP remains “committed to the guidelines of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri” suggests for now it will—it may find itself struggling to attract new recruits and to prevent its current members from defecting to the more sectarian—and therefore more compelling—Islamic State. On the other hand, AQAP could see its support among the Yemeni people increase as the Islamic State’s savagery begins to make AQAP look like the “good guys” (or at least the “slightly less bad guys”).

AQAP may even end up fighting the Islamic State and its sympathizers in Yemen, as we saw in Syria when the rivalry between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State exploded into a bloody internecine battle that killed hundreds of fighters on both sides. Historically, such competition between terrorist groups often produces extreme violence, as each group tries to outdo its rivals—and it’s hard to be more violent than the Islamic State. The Charlie Hebdo attacks can be seen in this light, as an attempt by al-Qaida and its supporters to stay relevant in the competition for leadership of the global jihadist movement. The recent successes of AQAP, along with the gains made in Syria by Jabhat al-Nusra, had led some analysts to declare that, at the moment, “Al-Qaida is beating the Islamic State.”

One key uncertainty is Saudi policy. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia opposes al-Qaida in general and AQAP in particular, as the latter has targeted Saudi security forces and in 2009 even tried to kill Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who is now in charge of Saudi military operations in Yemen. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has a history of working with Salafi-jihadist groups and may believe they are the lesser of two evils in the war against the Houthis, whom the Saudis believe are puppets of Tehran, the leading Shi`ite power. Tehran has been arming and otherwise assisting the Houthis, but the scale of Iranian involvement remains opaque. The temptation to aid all the Houthis’ enemies, no matter how nasty, will grow should Saudi military operations stagnate.

It is unclear how AQAP is prioritizing its enemy list. It condemned the Islamic State’s bombing of the Zaydi mosques, but not the Saudi intervention. Trying to sit out the civil war is likely to prove impossible, but entering the fray is both politically and militarily risky.

U.S. policy too is in disarray. Our hoped-for Yemeni partners over the years—first Saleh and then his successor Hadi—no longer wield even partial control over the country. The Saudi intervention may push back the Houthis, but that may give AQAP and other jihadists even more freedom of operation. Even worse, the Saudi intervention might fail, trapping Riyadh and other regional allies in a quagmire and increasing pressure on the United States to play a greater role in the no-win situation that is Yemen.