Explainer: what is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

Yemen faces an ongoing insurgency by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – one of al-Qaeda’s most active and dangerous branches. EPA/Abdul-Rahman Hwais

As the dust settles on a series of terrorist attacks in France, people will now look to understand the broader players of this grim drama. From their own statements and from external sources, it appears that the Kouachi brothers – the perpetrators of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices – were affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

So, what is this chapter of al-Qaeda? Where did it come from? What are its objectives?

Al-Ayeri and the rise of the Saudi cells

AQAP is al-Qaeda’s first and only success at directly founding a major branch outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Groups like al-Nusra, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda Iraq (now known as Islamic State) and al-Shabaab all began as distinct organisations that later swore fealty to the central group. In contrast, AQAP was founded from the ground up by order of al-Qaeda’s central command.

NATO intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 destroyed much of al-Qaeda’s command and control structures. Many veterans of the organisation returned home to their parent countries following this. Among them was Yusef al-Ayeri, a Saudi national and trusted lieutenant to bin Laden.

Under direction from Afghanistan, Ayeri worked patiently in 2002 to reactivate al-Qaeda’s networks and construct five large terrorist cells inside Saudi Arabia. The ostensible goal of these groups, according to terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer, was:

… the eviction of the crusaders from the land of the two sanctuaries.

The cells were concentrated in Riyadh, Hejaz, Qasim, the Eastern Province and Najran. They were organisationally arrayed in a hub-and-spoke configuration and operated largely independently of one another, directed by a central command node.

An abortive terror campaign

In May 2003, this new chapter of al-Qaeda announced its existence with a devastating suicide attack on a Western contractor compound in Riyadh. It left around 40 dead and more than 160 wounded.

Saudi security forces responded quickly with a widespread crackdown. Al-Ayeri was killed in a firefight on May 31, 2003. Nevertheless, the compound bombings marked the beginning of a terror campaign that largely targeted Westerners working in Saudi Arabia for the next year and a half.

AQAP initially enjoyed a degree of local support inside Saudi Arabia thanks to its declared goal of ridding the holy land of “infidel invaders”. But this support largely collapsed after the group committed a major blunder in November 2003 in Muhayya. AQAP attempted to reproduce the success of its first signature attack – detonating a vehicle in the centre of a residential compound.

This time, however, the targeting went awry. Rather than slaughtering Western foreigners, the Muhayya incident mostly killed Arab Muslims. This immediately undermined AQAP’s message of protecting the Islamic community.

While AQAP was to stumble on for several years, its waning local support, combined with the increasing efficacy of Saudi counter-terrorism policies, saw it ultimately flee Saudi Arabia south to Yemen and merge with a smaller AQ affiliate in 2009. While the group had managed to kill several hundred civilians during its time inside Saudi Arabia, it had completely failed to credibly challenge Saudi rule or remove outsiders from the country.

Refocusing in Yemen

With little state penetration in much of the Yemeni hinterland, AQAP was able to slowly reconstitute itself. The Arabian Peninsula’s south enabled AQAP to bolster itself with militants and material, but also brought it into direct conflict with a new phenomenon: religious nationalism.

The Houthi movement, whose aspirations for Shi'a statehood were an affront the the hardline Sunni reformism espoused by AQAP, was a natural opponent for the organisation. Violence easily flared between the two.

This was in addition to ongoing conflicts with the central government out of Sana'a, numerous autonomous tribal actors throughout the country, and a relentless drone strike campaign waged by the US. These new vectors of conflict forced AQAP to realign its priorities, lessening its emphasis on attacking local Western targets, as it had done inside the Kingdom.

Instead, the group began to reorient some of its efforts to engage in global jihad, where it became something of a tactical innovator. AQAP directly organised the attempted attack by the infamous “underwear bomber” in 2009. In the same year, the group utilised a novel method in a failed attempt to assassinate the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef: it used a suicide bomber with a device inserted in his anal cavity.

In October 2010, AQAP again attempted to use another innovative strategy by shipping explosive devices hidden in printer cartridges to two synagogues. The group has also been alleged to have had ideological links to the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hassan, although this remains murky.

Although AQAP’s attempts to attack the West have largely been failures, they nevertheless have shown both relentless commitment as well as a worrying penchant for creativity.

Brothers and Paris attackers Cherif and Said Kouachi had alleged ties to AQAP. EPA/French Police

Staying relevant

Since the Arab Uprisings, AQAP has been in a state of relative decline. With Houthi power on the rise, AQAP’s ability to confront its domestic foes is becoming increasingly constrained.

To add further salt to the wound, the conflict in Syria and Iraq has drawn many foreigners – AQAP’s primary source of recruits – away from the grinding insurgency of Yemen to the high-intensity battlefields of the Levant and Mesopotamia.

Al-Qaeda as a whole – if such a thing can even be said to exist – has also struggled to maintain itself as the ideological caretaker of global jihadism in the face of the compelling message and actions of IS. With AQAP having only roughly a thousand fighters and IS estimated to possess up to 30,000, the implications of this intra-jihadist conflict are not simply academic. For many foreign fighters, IS has become the torch bearer of what has been termed the “neo-jihadist” cause.

Down, but not out

Nevertheless, AQAP remains the most active al-Qaeda branch in the pursuit of global jihad. While other affiliates like AQIM and al-Nusra are bogged down in their own regional conflicts, AQAP has simultaneously pursued holy war at both the parochial and global level.

In 2013, AQAP’s leader, Nasir al-Wuyashi, is said to have been named al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s second-in-command. This suggests that he will ultimately inherit command of the core al-Qaeda group.

Analysts maintain that while IS is a threat in the short term, in the long run AQAP is most concerning. Although IS has made numerous calls for global jihad, its ability to realise such goals has proven ineffective thus far.

Despite being enmeshed in numerous local conflicts, AQAP, in contrast, has demonstrated a will to pursue actions against Western targets. The attacks in France seem to be a tragic reminder of this.