Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for last week’s attacks in France in both a website statement and a series of tweets on January 9. The statement was issued by AQAP’s religious authority, Harith Al Nazari, who hailed the attack on the French cartoonists as a religious duty to avenge their satire of the Prophet Mohammad. Nazari also promised more attacks against French, British and American targets.
On Twitter, another AQAP leader was more direct in explicitly claiming credit for the Paris attack and noted AQAP’s English language magazine Inspire had explicitly called for the murder of the cartoonists. He also promised more attacks to come.
Nazari has been prominent recently in leading AQAP’s criticism of the Islamic State and its leader, Caliph Ibrahim aka Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Nazari has denounced the self-proclaimed caliph and his caliphate as illegitimate. The Paris attacks serve to burnish Al Qaeda’s claims to be the legitimate leadership of the global jihad and the true heirs of Osama bin Laden. AQAP is thriving today in the chaos of Yemen’s broken state. Since the Zaydi Shia Houthi group took control of Sanaa and Huydaydah last fall, AQAP has become the leader of the Sunni resistance to the Houthis, whom they accuse of beings pawns of Iran. AQAP has carried out dozens of suicide bomb attacks on Houthi soldiers and civilians. The efforts of the United States and Saudi Arabia to defeat AQAP have been severely undermined by the collapse of the moderate government created to replace former President Ali Abdallah Salih’s dictatorship.
AQAP’s leader Nasir Abdel Karim Al Wuhayshi was bin Laden’s secretary and assistant for many years. He fled to Iran after the fall of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in 2001. Iran handed him over to the Salih government two years later, but he broke out of prison in 2006. In January 2009, he announced the formation of AQAP uniting Al Qaeda’s groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In 2013, Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri designated Wuhayshi as his second-in-command and heir.
Under Wuhayshi’s leadership, AQAP has repeatedly tried to carry out terrorist attacks in the U.S. including the attempt to blow up an aircraft flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. In a video last March, Wuhayshi said Al Qaeda must “remove the Cross and the bearer of the Cross, America.” The group has the best bomb-making skills in Al Qaeda and through its partner, the Al Nusra front in Syria, it has access to the thousands of foreign fighters especially European Muslims fighting there. Its Inspire magazine has been linked to the Boston Marathon plot.
Putting the Yemeni ‘Humpty Dumpty’ back together again and building a capable state there is a daunting challenge. The Houthis hate America and the Saudis almost as much as AQAP does. Salih remains a malevolent player. Aden and much of the south is eager to secede from the country. Sectarian violence is rising rapidly. But the tragedy in France underscores the deep threat still posed by Al Qaeda.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship had its finest hour under Bush. It’s no surprise that the Saudis want to remember the good old days. Given the acute crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations, Riyadh urgently needs a capable ambassador in Washington, but not one so tainted with the Khashoggi murder and coverup.