Al-Qaeda’s most active and notorious branch – the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – has claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. While some questions remain about the full credibility of the claim, it is not entirely implausible: it’s been established that some of the attackers had been trained in Yemen, and at least one of them had met AQAP’s former chief ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born jihadist killed in a US drone strike in 2011.
Of all of al-Qaeda’s branches and affiliates, AQAP is the one with the most significant track record of serious international terrorist plots. It masterminded both the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot and the 2010 cargo plane bomb plot. It also publishes the jihadist movement’s English-language magazine, Inspire.
AQAP has long been taken seriously as a terrorist threat by both local and Western security agencies, and has been the target of a US campaign for several years now. Drone strikes and surveillance have been reasonably effective, but they have by no means defeated AQAP, which is still considered the most dangerous of al-Qaeda’s affiliates.
AQAP’s alleged involvement in the Paris attacks not only highlights the continuing threat from al-Qaeda in general, which must not be underestimated; it also underscores the similarities and differences between al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
The latter certainly had captured most of the attention since its rapid territorial expansion in 2014, and pushed al-Qaeda “proper” out of the limelight for some time.
While some have argued that the two are locked into a competition for leadership in the global jihadist movement or are headed in quite different directions, others have argued that differences between the two are marginal at best – and even fear the possibility of renewed co-operation between them, if only for each to secure their own independent survival.
The truth is that both views apply, in various ways. AQAP has long been carrying out attacks on the near and far enemy (the current and previous governments of Yemen and Western targets), much in the style of al-Qaeda. But it has also sought and even managed to capture and hold significant territory across southern Yemen, a strategy now also embraced by Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
It was among the first al-Qaeda branches to pledge allegiance to Osama bin-Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and it made no mention of Islamic State in its claim to have instigated the attack against Charlie Hebdo.
Yet the fugitive partner of one of the Paris attackers has reportedly fled to Syria, although it is unclear whether to territory controlled by Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s local affiliate there, the al-Nusra front. Meanwhile, another possible affiliate of the Paris attackers had already been arrested in Bulgaria on January 1 2015 on his way to Turkey.
Cut them off
In the same way that Islamic State has profited from instability and civil war in Iraq and Syria, the success of AQAP in Yemen since 2009, when it was born from the formal “merger” of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda, has been predicated on the weakness and fragmentation of the Yemeni state.
Variously aligned with tribes and the southern Yemeni independence movement, AQAP capitalised on the fall of the Saleh regime in the wake of the Arab Spring. Having captured large swaths of territory in the country’s south, it was pushed back during 2012 by a joint US-Yemeni campaign.
While not defeated, the organisation was significantly weakened, but it found a new lease of life in the fight against the al-Houthi movement, a minority Shi'a group that has captured significant parts of territory in northern and western Yemen, including establishing a presence in the capital Sana'a. This has given AQAP an opportunity to align itself with the Sunni backlash against the Houthis and regain a territorial foothold in the south.
The possibility that AQAP could start capturing and holding territory on a large scale is deeply worrying, not least since that would give the group a base from which to relaunch its international agenda.
The Paris attacks are a warning that we must close off the opportunity that a persistently weak and fragmented state presents for terror groups such as AQAP. For while the root causes for the attack on Charlie Hebdo may be found in the radicalisation of disaffected young Muslims at home in France, what ultimately enables them to launch major attacks are the means and training offered by AQAP and its ilk.
It is of course absolutely vital to address the personal motivations behind such attacks, but it may take a generation or more to do that successfully. In the meantime, making sure we permanently disrupt groups such as AQAP and their ability to train and recruit is a good strategy, and one which we can put into action now.