American counterterrorism officials recently warned that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is trying to produce the lethal poison ricin to be packed around small bombs for use in attacks against the U.S. homeland. This latest development is further evidence of AQAP’s growing threat to the United States. The group has demonstrated remarkable resiliency and adaptability in its history, surviving several leadership changes and major crackdowns in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its success in the face of adversity is a model for other al Qaeda units now threatened. In particular, with al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan under severe pressure due to Usama bin Ladin’s death in May 2011, AQAP provides insights into the jihad’s capacity to rally back from defeat.
AQAP has done far more than just survive. In the last two years, it has emerged as a potent al Qaeda threat to the U.S. homeland, staging two attacks on American cities and inspiring other attacks by American Muslims, including U.S. Army soldiers attracted to AQAP’s message. AQAP has developed a new strategy for attacking the United States which emphasizes small and simple operations designed to undermine the economy and “hemorrhage” a country in the midst of a severe economic crisis. AQAP has also led the jihadist movement in adapting the traditional al Qaeda narrative and ideology to the new paradigm of the “Arab Spring.” AQAP embraced the revolutionary “tsunami” both in name and action. It articulated a new narrative for al Qaeda that seizes on the Arab Spring and puts it into a jihadist context. In Yemen, the terrorist group has exploited the chaos and confusion around the revolution against President Ali Abdullah Salih to expand its room for maneuver and safe havens.
AQAP is an ambitious organization that has by its own statements “great expectations” for the future. The United States will need a focused but comprehensive policy and significant assistance from Saudi Arabia to deal with AQAP’s operatives.
This article highlights al Qaeda’s resiliency in the Arabian Peninsula, examines its strategy of defeating the United States and its allies through “a thousand cuts,” and identifies the group’s local and regional ambitions.