Photo: AQAP slogan on a street sign in the town of Jaar, Abyan governorate, South Yemen, in 2012. (AP)

AQAP Emerges Again in Yemen: Why Now?


Sun, 15-05-2022 07:30 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

Over the past three years, AQAP's activities significantly declined despite some sporadic and relatively rare operations that primarily targeted areas under the Southern security and military forces control in in South Yemen. This is due to the latter’s war against AQAP’s dens and its relative success in neutralizing its activities which were intense between 2015 and 2017. However, after the recent announcement of the political transition changes in Yemen, news about the escape of 10 suspected AQAP affiliates from a high-security prison in Hadramout was remarkable. The prison is affiliated with the 1st Military District which is directed by pro-Islah (Muslim Brotherhood) military commanders and receives direct orders from Major General and former Vice President, Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar.

The political changes in the Yemeni presidency structure on April 7th led to the removal of Al-Ahmar from the political scene as the Vice President. The escape operation from a fortified prison in Seiyun is more likely seen as a response towards Al-Ahmar’s removal from power. This also came in the wake of arrangements to move the 1st Military District from Wadi Hadramout to areas adjacent with the Houthis. According to the same estimates, the escape was an arranged operation to convey a message to the region that terrorism is the alternate option [1]. Several weeks later, on May 6th, 7 militants made an infiltration attempt while riding a civil vehicle towards a security checkpoint between the borders of Dhalea’s Juban and Al-Shuayb districts. After being arrested, the armed men claimed that they had prior ties with the Security Belt inAl-Dhaleaa. This pushed some members of the Security Belt to take them to their command headquarters in the town of Hakwala in north of Al-Dhalea. 

At that time and in front of the external gate of the Security Belt headquarters, seven armed men refused to hand over their weapons. Later, they turned out to be AQAP members according to an official security statement. They launched a sudden attack against the Security Belt Forces using light and medium weapons as well as homemade grenades which killed several officials including Colonel Walid al-Dami and Colonel Mohammed al-Shubji, the Commander of the Southern Counter-terrorism Forces in Al-Dhalea and injured others [2]. On the other hand, Security Belt Forces completely rebelled the organization’s members during the attack which is the first of its kind in Al-Dhalea governorate whose people have been known by security and military solidity in the face of the Houthis over the war which began in 2014. 

Senior AQAP member "Salim Al-Masan" is the one who led the attack along with his sibling "Saleh Al-Masan”. The two siblings, who were killed during the attack, are from the town of Al-Dababiya in the “Juban”, which is administratively affiliated with Al-Dhalea and is located on the border of Al-Bayda. Al-Masan was among wanted extremist leaders involved in a series of crimes the latest of which was kidnapping employees working for an international organization in the city of Qatabah. They were accused of assisting the Houthis to invade Radaa district in Al-Bayda in 2016. This was part of AQAP’s facilities provided to the Houthis in return of their assistance in their war against ISIS [3]. International media outlets reported that the latest attack in Al-Dhalea aimed at releasing detained AQAP’s members from a prison inside the Security Belt headquarters [4] although a field source, who spoke to “South24”, denied the presence of AQAP members in the governorate’s prisons. 

The latest incident is added to previous similar ones in which they adopted the same methods and tactics to implement their operations. In July 2012, twelve AQAP members sneaked through Al-Shuayb district coming from Al-Bayda carrying medium and light weapons. A military patrol intercepted them and asked them to surrender but the AQAP militants refused and began shooting the soldiers. This led to the killing of a soldier and the two AQAP members including a senior commander [5]. The operations happened days after the assassination of General “Salim Qatn'' who led the war against AQAP at that time and was able to regain control on some districts in Abyan and Shabwa from the organization’s grip killing 429 AQAP members [6].

The latest infiltration operation tactic carried out by the AQAP was similar to what happened to Prince "Mohammed Bin Nayef'', the former Saudi Assistant Interior Minister in 2009. He survived an assassination attempt made by a wanted extremist who managed to enter the Prince’s home in Jeddah after claiming he wanted to repent and meet Bin Nayef according to the Saudi authorities [7]. Later, it turned out that the Saudi suicide bomber “Abdullah Asiri'' was living in the city of Marib and that he was an AQAP affiliate who went to Saudi Arabia claiming he wants to surrender himself to the authorities to serve as a model who encourage his colleagues to follow his suit and renounce the extremist organization [8].

It is important to say that AQAP members depended in its latest moves and tactics in Al-Dhalea on several factors including exploiting its role as a local resistance pretending that  they fight the Houthis although they move freely in the Houthis’ influence areas. Moreover, they benefited from the weak intelligence role played by the Southern military and security forces. The latter have been easily penetrated because most of these forces have poor security experience. Although the Southern forces played a prominent and remarkable role in combating AQAP during past years, their intelligence role still lacks a lot if efforts and work, foremost of which is providing information and accurate data about the wanted figures including their ties, activities and capabilities as well as dealing with them in light of this to secure these agencies and their staff. 

Relationship with the Houthis

The Houthis control four districts north of Al-Dhalea including “Damt”, “Juban”, Al-Husha and parts of Qatabah. On the other hand The Southern military and security forces control the other five Southern districts, especially which were administratively affiliated with the former South Yemen state. People in the areas under the Houthi control are subjected to oppressive authorities due to the presence of popular resistance there. They have sustained systematic violations including killing, detaining, enforced disappearance, coercive recruitment, random mine planting, bombing houses and destroying infrastructure [9]. Meanwhile, Saim Al-Masan moved between Al-Bayda and Radaa under the Houthi protection for years until being detained in 2019 in espionage accusations. However, he was released soon to set himself as AQAP senior commander in his hometown Juban [10].

Security sources accused “Al-Masan” of forging direct ties with the Houthis. This was proven as Houthi-controlled areas were the place from which they began moving to carry out their latest operation. The sources also made a connection between this and releasing him earlier as part of a deal between the two parties. Its main aim was to destabilize the role of the local resistance in Al-Dhalea and disturb the liberated areas. Since he was released, he had apparently exploited the mountainous areas between “Al-Dhalea” and “Al-Bayda” to establish training camps for AQAP members. He established safe locations and roads to facilitate their moves between the two governorates [11].

In this regard, it is important to make a connection with the relationships between AQAP and Iran since 2015. The American magazine Foreign Affair published a report about this relationship which included exchanging prisoners. This has allowed AQAP commanders to stay in Iranian territories and to consider them as a main headquarters for the organization’s operations. The magazine added that Tehran allowed AQAP to establish a new operation headquarters within its lands and to work under the protection of the Iranian regime [12]. This can be attributed with the growing relationships between the Iran-backed Houthis and AQAP members. 

Furthermore, in a report sent to the UNSC, the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of cooperating with AQAP and ISIS [13]. The report added that the Houthis released 252 prisoners affiliated with AQAP. They also released one of those who plotted the attack against the American ship “USS Cole”. The magazine dubbed the Houthi operations against AQAP in Yemen as being “sham”. The report confirmed the Houthi relationships with the “terrorist” organizations reached the level of joint coordination and exchanging roles that threaten Yemen’s security and stability along with regional surroundings and the international navigation lines. 

It is clear that the Houthis currently need AQAP activities even if they don’t agree ideologically with all its leaders and make their coordination limited to certain groups. This justifies the increase of their activities recently. It seems that those systematic operations confuse the political and military scenes as well as distracting the Southern military forces from confronting the Houthis on the areas bordering the geographic areas they control. This came while the Yemeni parties stick to a truce which has not ended yet. Making internal security turmoil in more than Southern areas and moving tension to them by coordinating with the radical groups apparently suit the Houthis. This in turn puts pressures against the Presidential Council. 

Dubious activities

After former President Hadi announced the newly-formed Presidential Council, Al-Malahim Foundation, AQAP media arm issued a seven-page statement [14] which attacked the Presidential Council adding that it consists of the same “old corrupt elite”. It added that the Council’s formation is part of a Saudi scheme to keep Yemen weak and that this would serve the US interests and benefits the Houthis. It is worth mentioning that AQAP statement advised the “Islah Party” to quickly control the situation in Yemen before everyone drowns. 

This confirms the close ties forged between AQAP and the Islah Party over the past decades and the organization’s confidence about what can Islah do if restoring its role again which could play into both AQAP and the Islah Party. Removing the Islah Party from sensitive decision making positions during the recent political transition operation has led to a remarkable decline in its role politically after many years of controlling Hadi’s decision making. However, forces affiliated with the Islah Party still control the military decision making in several areas and fronts including Marib, Taiz and part of Abyan and the 1st Military District in Hadramout. 

At the same context, an extremist religious group believed to be affiliated with AQAP targeted a liquefied gas pipeline in Al-Nashima in the Southern governorate of Shabwa. It is the first time to bomb the pipeline. Since 2015, the gas exportation has stopped [15]. Such an act is part of the growing dubious activities related to AQAP in several places and fronts, the latest of which was targeting a Southern Giants vehicle by suspected AQAP affiliates. The vehicle was hit by an explosive device while passing the public road in Abyan’s Al-Mahfad district. The attacks led to injuring 7 soldiers of the Giants forces and were taken to the hospital [16]. Although AQAP denied its responsibility for the attack, observers believe there is a likely cooperation between some Houthi cells [17] and radical groups suspected to be affiliated with the AQAP in the governorate. 

On the other hand, a local high- level source confirmed to “South24” that AQAP activities have increased recently in Shabwa districts, particularly in Merkhah following the political changes. This represents a big challenge for the local authorities. “Shabwa Defense Forces” announced the killing of AQAP senior commander, Yunus Al-Qashori, during clashes in Ataq, the capital city of Shabwa governorate [18].

In light of the background of growing AQAP activities, it is not clear how AQAP will deal with the counterterrorism file or what are the plans it intends to set out. The Chairman of the Presidential Council, Rashad Al-Alimi announced that “the Council will give much attention to the counterterrorism file by developing the security agencies and cooperation with international community partners. 

The increase of AQAP activities in South Yemen could again cause more turmoil and chaos if the Presidential Council doesn’t make decisive measures in the military and the security file, especially in the governorates of Taiz, Marib, Abyan and the 1st Military District in Wadi Hadramout in addition to enhancing the Southern Elite Forces which have achieved remarkable successes over past years. 

The activities of the extremist organization are not only a source of local upset, but remains a major international concern. On May 11, Christy Abizaid, the US Director of the National Counterterrorism Center said: “the concern that I've always had with AQAP is a concern that pertains today” [19].

Executive Director at South24 Center for News and Studies

[1] The Timing Indication of the Jailbreak by AQAP Members from Wadi Hadramout (
[2] South Yemen: A suspected AQAP's attack on Southern Forces in Dhale left casualties (
[3] Selim Al-Masan..The Terrorist affiliated with the AQAP and the Houthis Fell into the Trap (
[4] Suspected AQAP gunmen attack security headquarters in Southern Yemen – ThePrint
[5] Thwarting the infiltration of AQAP elements into Al-Dhalea Governorate and a security alert in Sanaa - (
[6] The killing of a soldier and an AQAP member in Yemen | Radiosawa
[7] The Saudi Assistant Interior Minister survived an assassination attempt caused by a penetration of a “terrorist” (
[8] The AQAP claims responsibility for the assassination attempt of the Saudi Assistant Minister of Interior (
[9] Yemen: 10,000 Houthi breaches against civilians in Al-Dhalea over two months (
[10] Selim Al-Masan..The Terrorist affiliated with the AQAP and the Houthis Fell into the Trap (
[11] Sources for "Akhbar Alaan": AQAP leader Selim Al-Mosin is linked to the Houthi militia and implements its agenda (
[12] Why are the AQAP leaders present in Iran? An American magazine answers -(
[13] Yemeni memorandum to the UNSC: Houthi militias are cooperating with “AQAP” and “ISIS” (
[14] AQAP statement from the Twitter page of the British researcher specialized in Islamic groups affairs, "Elizabeth Kendall" (Twitter)
[15] Yemen..a huge explosion targeting a gas pipeline in Shabwa (
[16] News and Reports - Photos - An attack targeting members of Giants Forces in Abyan (
[17] Abyan Police: A cell linked to the AQAP and the Houthis is behind targeting the Giant Forces in the governorate (
[18] News and Reports - Shabwa Defense Forces announce the killing of a AQAP (
[19] Counterterrorism Chief Christy Abizaid on top terror threats - "Intelligence Matters" - CBS News