Peyton Dashiell is a second-year student in the Dual BA program between Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris, studying political science, international affairs, and Arabic.
Since 2014, Yemen has suffered at the hands of an international proxy war, with fighting between the Houthi rebel movement and the former Hadi government propelled with help from Saudi Arabia, the US, and Iran. However, these two coalitions are not the only actors in this multifaceted conflict and humanitarian crisis. Previously a decentralized group planning attacks on distant targets, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has evolved into a faction capable of seizing and governing Yemeni territory amidst wartime conditions. The war has greatly enabled their rule. AQAP has benefitted from Yemen’s state collapse and power vacuums, utilized the wartime economy in seized regions to gain a financial lifeline, and exploited sectarian grievances and moderated their governance in order to gain popular support.
The origins of AQAP can be traced back to 2009, when Al Qaeda of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Jihad of Yemen merged operations to form the group. The organization previously focused on planning and conducting attacks on Western targets; by 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency believed that AQAP had surpassed its parent organization as a threat to the United States. AQAP has claimed responsibility for the 2009 Little Rock recruiting office shooting, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, and a bombing plot against Jewish institutions in Chicago, as well as several other foiled and successful attacks. However, since the war began, AQAP has shifted operations to focus on domestic power grabs in Yemen, becoming a governing force in the Sunni-majority Abyan governorate.
By taking advantage of the environment of state collapse and subsequent power vacuums in Yemen, AQAP has seized territory and expanded their reach across the country. They have taken multiple commercial hubs particularly in southern Yemen, including the port city of Mukalla and commercial hub of Azzan. While AQAP has much to gain from seizing these cities, they have faced little resistance in their operations. In light of the 2016 AQAP takeover of Azzan, a resident testified that AQAP forces simply arrived in the town in the morning, placed armed guards at city entrance checkpoints, and exerted their land claim by placing flags on all buildings. The local tribal militia retreated without a struggle. Similarly, after Yemeni forces moved onwards from Mukalla to combat zones in the west, only a few dozen AQAP militants were needed to take over the city, freeing hundreds of militants from its central prison and seizing power.
These territorial seizures resulted in a strong financial benefit for AQAP as they navigated the wartime economy. After taking control of port operations in Mukalla, AQAP earned about $2 million per day in taxes on goods and fuel entering the port. Through extortion of the national oil company and bank looting, AQAP’s total wealth is estimated at around $100 million—a budget that military officials claim could sustain them for the next decade. Furthermore, AQAP’s looting was not limited to banks. With a lack of security on abandoned army bases, AQAP has taken C4 explosives, anti-aircraft missiles, and other weaponry, utilizing them for their own operations or auctioning them off to interested parties. As a whole, Al Qaeda’s overall operating budget is primarily funded through donations, and Yemen’s largely informal economy presents many opportunities to launder money and illicitly support terrorist groups like AQAP.
Additionally, the complex wartime economy and alliance system has allowed AQAP-aligned militias to obtain American-made weapons originally given to coalition partners. In 2019, CNN discovered that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used US weapons as currency to forge alliances with local militias and aid different armed actors, violating the terms of the arms sale and prompting a State Department investigation. A chief recipient of the weapons was the Abu Abbas brigade, a militia supported by the coalition despite being declared a terrorist group by the United States in 2017 for its ties to AQAP. The militia came to possess US-made Oshkosh armored vehicles, and in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition airdropped American made anti-tank missiles in territory where the Abu Abbas militia operated alongside AQAP.
Finally, AQAP has exploited sectarian grievances and developed a reputation as a stable governing force to gain some degree of popular support from Yemenis even if they do not agree with their extremist ideology. While Yemen reunified in 1990, divisions remain between the former northern and southern regions of the country, and many residents of southern cities like Mukalla have expressed disillusionment with the northern elite. Some residents of Mukalla have said that they favor Al Qaeda’s rule over former governing factions, pointing to the stability in Mukalla compared to other areas in the country: a 47-year-old Mukalla resident stated in an interview that “the situation is stable, more than any ‘free’ part of Yemen. The alternative to al Qaeda is much worse.”
Residents of Mukalla, as well as AQAP officials themselves, have posted images on social media of AQAP running a functioning bureaucracy and improving public works like sewage systems and roads. While some of the media is undeniably intended as propaganda, there is evidence that AQAP improved living conditions in some areas where they governed. AQAP’s human rights record remained deplorable when ruling Mukalla; they stifled almost all dissent, kidnapped opposition and sent them to secret prisons outside the city, forced women to wear burqas, and carried out harsh punishments like public stonings and decapitations. However, residents have attested that these violent acts were relatively rare and AQAP was regarded as less brutal than the Islamic State, which also has a presence in Yemen and competes with AQAP for influence.
AQAP’s presence in Yemen has drastically waned in recent years. As of 2021, their land holdings were reduced to just 10 percent of the territory governed at their peak in 2017. Factors cited in this decline include both Houthi and coalition military offensives, as well as AQAP internal issues like infighting, ideological disputes, and leadership turnover. However, the rapid rise of AQAP throughout Yemen’s civil war illustrates how quickly terrorist organizations can exploit the conditions of wartime to solidify their power and how dangerously adaptive militant groups can be when presented with opportunities to govern. This reprieve in fighting may be, realistically speaking, solely temporary. As long as the civil war in Yemen is prolonged, the country will present a favorable environment for extremist groups to grow. While recent truce agreements foster hope for a viable path to peace, international actors must also suspend their military backing for both the Houthis and Hadis. Yemen is not a proxy battleground for a conflict of regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. International military withdrawal would facilitate relief efforts for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, stop the flow of weapons to AQAP-aligned militias, and provide an opportunity to create a stable governing environment to ensure that groups like AQAP remain dormant.