ISIS Emir in Yemen arrested (Abu Osama Al-Muhajir), June 25, 2019 - Al-Arabiya TV

Saudi «Counterterrorism» Efforts in Yemen: Fatal Loopholes


Tue, 21-02-2023 12:12 AM, Aden Time

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

Before announcing a military operation against the Houthis in Yemen in 2015, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) played a pivotal counterterrorism role. A large part of the US military and security success against AQAP can be attributed to the information provided by Saudi intelligence agencies. KSA achieved much success in penetrating AQAP internally. This made the process to target the group’s most prominent leaders by using drones an easy task. In most of AQAP’s visual releases, the majority of whom it dubbed as being “spies” admitted that they were recruited in KSA. The latest and biggest of these visual releases consists of 5 parts entitled “Demolition of Espionage”. [1]

Besides that, the US established the biggest Middle Eastern secret drone airport in Saudi Arabia according to a report published by “Washington Post.” [2] Previously In 2011, the US drones used to be launched from bases in Djibouti. 

Saudi Arabia's role was not limited to providing this form of support as it directly participated militarily against AQAP. Between 2011-2012, Saudi planes took part in targeting AQAP’s locations in the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa. The strong cooperation between the two countries in counterterrorism was remarkable through the tone adopted by AQAP when talking about KSA. This tone has been softened after Operation “Decisive Storm” for reasons we will mention later. Practically, AQAP carried out retaliatory attacks within the Saudi territories such as Sharurah operations in 2014 and others. [3]

Although AQAP pledged to implement more operations, it has not done so. It is important to indicate that AQAP tried to assassinate Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef inside his Jeddah palace by a suicider called Abdullah Talea’ Al-Asiri in 2009. Bin Nayef was then the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister and in charge of the "terrorism file" in the Middle East. 

It can be said that the Saudi efforts in the war against terrorism before “Decisive Storm” were organized and influential. This war was a priority for Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, there was much AQAP focus on targeting Saudi Arabia, but this has receded a lot after the aforementioned operation from both parties. 

After “Decisive Storm”

The US planes succeeded in reaching prominent AQAP leaders over the first months following the Saudi anti-Houthi operation in Yemen. However, the information that led to the targets, which came from Saudi Arabia, according to the confessions made by those whom AQAP introduced as spies [4], was a result of efforts made at an earlier stage. According to some analyses, Saudi Arabia provided its valuable information to practically prove that the anti-Houthis war will not affect anti-terrorism operations. However, Saudi Arabia has later focused on the anti-Houthi war and has turned a blind eye to AQAP ignoring even the group's presence in some fronts affiliated with the internationally recognized government. Furthermore, former Coalition spokesman Ahmad Asiri denied in 2015 that operation “Decisive Storm” had goals or tasks against AQAP or ISIS. [5] However, this does not mean that AQAP is not a target for Saudi Arabia in general, but the group has not been really a main Saudi target after that. AQAP, which pledged in late 2014 to escalate its operations within Saudi Arabia, has reciprocated by not carrying out any new operations within the Saudi territories or against Saudi forces in Yemen. 

According to exclusive sources, AQAP denounced the ISIS operations against the Arab Coalition in Yemen and accused it of ignoring the Sharia policy which requires unifying efforts for the anti-Houthi war. Later, AQAP began to attack the UAE through its releases and statements without mentioning Saudi Arabia except for in late 2022. Although the operation to drive AQAP out of Al-Mukalla was carried out by the Saudi-led Coalition, the group’s statement about it attacked and threatened UAE only. [6]

What can be considered as an indicator that the anti-AQAP war has receded among Saudi priorities is that the group released the Saudi Vice Consul in Aden, Abdullah Al-Khaldi, three years after being kidnapped. AQAP waived its main condition to release female prisoners inside KSA and accepted a big ransom according to exclusive sources. [7] However, this does not mean in general that the kingdom has frozen its activities in the anti-terrorism war, but they have been receded comparing to what it used to do before its anti-Houthi operations. 

While there has been no record of any special Saudi operations against AQAP after 2015, the Arab Coalition disclosed some operations that witnessed Saudi participation against ISIS. 

In early June 2009, Saudi Colonel Turki Al-Maliki announced that the Saudi Special Forces and their Yemeni counterparts arrested ISIS Emir in Yemen known as Abu Osama al-Muhajir along with the group’s financial official and a number of accompanied ISIS members in Al-Mahra governorate, east of Aden. 


Additionally, the anti-Houthi war has opened loopholes in the counterterrorism efforts which would not have been opened without some calculations. These loopholes include the ongoing support to the Islah despite AQAP’s presence within the party’s-controlled areas. Furthermore, the group has participated in the Islah’s fighting fronts. In 2017, the then AQAP Leader Qasim Al-Raymi confirmed the participation of the group’s elements on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood. [8] Matters have not been limited to this level as the group has participated on the side of forces affiliated with the Islah party in Abyan and Shabwa since 2019. Prior to that, the then AQAP's field commander Jalal Belaidi Al-Marqashi confirmed that the group's presence included 11 fighting fronts [9]. He meant the Islah fronts according to Al-Raymi’s interpretation. 

In the penultimate AQAP visual release, the group’s leader Abu Ali Al-Hadrami criticized the Arab Coalition, especially the UAE, against the backdrop of the Ataq events in Shabwa which led to expelling forces affiliated with the Islah party out of the city. Moreover, the group denounced dismissing former Shabwa governor, Mohammed Saleh Bin Adyo, and mentioned his name for the first time. [10] Ataq and other Shabwa areas served as strong AQAP bastions as of 2019 when forces affiliated with the Islah party began to hold control over them. The group has not carried out any operations within these areas which served as a starting point for its attacks in Abyan, Aden, Lahj and others. Therefore, AQAP believes that it has received a big blow by driving the Islah forces out of Shabwa and Abyan governorate later. 

However, the ongoing efforts to protect the forces affiliated with the Islah party in some Hadramout districts such as the First Military District are considered indirect protection of AQAP as Wadi Hadramout is its last main stronghold in South Yemen. Such moves would undermine the latest successful counterterrorism efforts led by the Southern forces. Thanks to these efforts, AQAP has reached an advanced level of vulnerability. The group’s current leader Khaled Batarfi, who is a Saudi national, admitted this in his latest speech. He confirmed that the group suffers from poor capabilities. He denounced the positions adopted by some tribal figures towards the war against AQAP and called for providing support to the group. It is probably the first time the group calls for the tribes to support it. 

In this recording, Batarfi criticized both KSA and UAE leaders. 

AQAP leader accused Saudi Arabia of legitimizing its involvement along with the US in Yemen by establishing PLC. He said: “KSA established PLC to pass its plots in Yemen and legitimate its involvement along with Washington in the country.”

US warnings

Being preoccupied with arranging its cards with the Houthis in North, Saudi Arabia resorted to rearming forces which represent a Salafist faction affiliated with it in South. This could effectively complicate the ongoing counterterrorism efforts there according to western experts. Specialized American voices began already to criticize the Saudi measures in South Yemen. [11]

In this context, two prominent US institutes warned of the consequences of the new armed groups established by KSA in South Yemen on the ongoing “counterterrorism operation” there and STC’s anti-AQAP efforts in Abyan. They believe that “any internal conflict would delay pressure against AQAP which may benefit from the conflict scenario to increase its ability for launching large attacks, including against Aden. 

Accordingly, it can be said that the previous and subsequent Saudi measures have directly affected counterterrorism efforts. KSA currently plays the opposite role to the one it had made before operation “Decisive Storm.” The continuity of these measures serves as a lifeline for AQAP and saves it from an imminent death. 

*Ibrahim Ali is a pseudonym of a researcher specialized in the armed group affairs. He demanded anonymity for personal reasons.



1- A series of visual releases issued by AQAP between 2018-2020

2- Brennan nomination exposes criticism on targeted killings and secret Saudi base (Washington Post)

3- AQAP issued a fiery statement about the operations at the time and pledged more.

4- Part 1 of “Demolition of Espionage” issued by Al Malahem Foundation affiliated with AQAP

5- Asiri: Targeting AQAP is not among the tasks of “Decisive Storm”-YouTube

6- AQAP issued an official statement one week after the operation

7- Exclusive sources who spoke to the writer

8- A visual speech by Al-Raymi commenting on the US landing operations in Al-Bayda governorate

9- A visual speech by Al-Marqashi in which he commented on the Houthi invasion of Al-Bayda

10- A Reading in AQAP’s Recording about the Latest Shabwa Events (South24 Center)

11- US warnings of weakening anti-terrorism efforts in South Yemen (South24 Center)

Saudi ArabiaAQAPISISIslahYemenSouth YemenSouthern ForcesAbyanShabwaHadramout