The Southern forces during an operation to clear Wadi Oemran in Mudiya district of Abyan, October 2022 (Youssef Thabet - South24 Center)

What Is Behind AQAP’s Escalation in Abyan?


Wed, 24-05-2023 12:24 AM, Aden Time

Although the Southern forces made huge successes and were on their way to completely destroy AQAP in its last bastion in the governorate, there are factors that apparently helped the group to catch breath.

Ibrahim Ali* (South24) 

Despite the decrease in AQAP’s attacks in the governorate of Abyan during the two first weeks of May, its attacks escalated in March and April in an unprecedented pace since the beginning of the military operation “Arrows of the East” against the group in August 2022.
Despite the military and security operations carried out by the Southern forces against AQAP, the group has repeatedly tried to assert its presence through variable attacks [1] that targeted several soldiers and prominent security leaders affiliated with the Security Belt and the military Abyan Axis led by Brigadier General Mukhtar Al-Nubi. Meanwhile, AQAP’s operations targeted security points affiliated with Shabwa Defense Forces. These attacks varied between ambushes and remote targeting by using explosive devices. Recently, AQAP carried out a drone attack for the first time. [2]
The sharpness of the attacks has escalated with the growing AQAP’s media activities. This has been represented in the quick pace of claiming responsibility for the operations it implements as well as in its various enticing publications. This comes after AQAP disclosed its suffering from a financial crisis calling tribes to help it according to its leader Khaled Batarfi in his latest speech. [3]
The return of carrying out operations stirs important questions about whether the group managed to regather its cards, the reasons that helped it to do so and the future of the war against it in Abyan.

The Arrows of the East

Before discussing the aforementioned questions, it can be said that the "Arrows of the East" operation [4] largely contributed, at an unprecedented level, in reducing the increase of the group's power and influence after tightening the noose on AQAP which was driven out of its most important bastions in Yemen. It can be said also that the turmoil experienced by the group that led it to a bad situation which pushed AQAP to appeal to the tribes was a result of this military operation that reached its fortified bulwarks for the first time. It is remarkable that the previous operations were limited to expelling the group from the main cities not more.
Accordingly, the group's media attack focused on the Southern forces and the UAE which is reportedly the latter's main backer. Moreover, AQAP threatened to target the tribes that deliver any form of support to these forces. Although the Southern forces made big successes and were on their way to completely destroy AQAP in its last bastion in the governorate, there are factors that apparently helped the group to catch breath. This has been indicated in its latest operation in Al-Mahfad and Mudiyah districts in Abyan and areas that border it in Shabwa.
External interventions

One of the most important factors that helped AQAP to be cohesive and catch breath is the latest military measures taken by Saudi Arabia and the establishment of parallel armed entities [5] along with the continuous failure to pay the salaries of Southern forces engaged in the war against “terrorism”. Moreover, KSA likely opposes the expansion of the Southern forces to the governorates of Hadramout and Al-Mahra.
This largely affects the strategy of the war against terrorism that has been largely based on tracking its elements in all its bastions and preventing them from securing a safe shelter where they can resort or be a starting point for their operations. What is stirring doubts is that Saudi Arabia realizes that standing against the expansion of deploying the Southern forces in Wadi Hadramout and Al-Mahra means standing beside the forces that run these areas who are affiliated with the Islah Party and who are accused by people of engaging with AQAP. [6]
Besides, experts [7] did not rule out that members belonging to the Islah Party engaged or will likely be involved in fighting along with AQAP after the party lost its influence in Shabwa, particularly in August 2022. This came concurrently with the Saudi endeavors to forge a peace deal with the Houthis. They also don’t exclude that Wadi Hadramout would witness the repetition of the downfall of Mukalla scenario in 2015. [8]
The Houthi group

As the relationship between the Houthis and AQAP is steady, cooperation between the two parties is expected, especially when they have a joint enemy or goal. As for the Houthis in North Yemen, the Southern forces constitute the biggest threat against them. They are the only forces known by the quick resolve of their battles against the group like what happened in the western coast of Yemen as well as Usaylan and Beihan districts in Shabwa over the past few years.

Since 2015, the governmental forces affiliated with the Islah Party have engaged in ongoing battles against the Houthis in Sirwah district, at the west of Marib without one party losing its positions in favor of the other party. Although some analyses attribute this to the hard nature of Marib's terrain, the Giant Forces proved the opposite as they just needed a few days to drive the Houthis out of vast areas in Harib District to secure the three districts of Shabwa.
Thus, AQAP may be keen to enhance its presence in South Yemen, especially in Abyan which borders Al-Bayda governorate controlled by the group with an aim to disperse these forces. 
Additionally, the Houthis’ latest remarkable focus on talking about the situation in South Yemen suggests that they are hiding something. Houthi leaders such as Mahdi Al-Mashat the Head of the group’s Political Council, Abdulmalik Al-Jaari and Hussein Al-Ezzi issued public warnings and threats regarding the Yemeni unity. These statements followed holding an expanded Southern meeting as part of the STC-led Southern Dialogue calling for the establishment of a Southern federal state independent from North Yemen. [9]
The latest escalation of AQAP’s activities, despite the strong campaigns against it and the admissions by its leaders of reaching unprecedented financial insolvency, suggests that there are external factors behind this escalation. The Houthis need to increase AQAP’s activities in South Yemen as a pretext to carry out attacks or probably think of declaring war against it, especially if they reach any peace agreement with Saudi Arabia by which they can guarantee the continuous presence of North Yemen under their control.
It isn’t unlikely that the Houthis provide support to AQAP to override its financial crisis and find a shelter which can gradually become a starting point to carry out operations against the Southern forces in Abyan, Shabwa and others. This is not related to the Houthis but to Iran which knows how to manage the Houthis and AQAP together. 
These possibilities can be understood in light of AQAP's claim of responsibility for the first time for the drone attack that targeted a location in the Shabwa Defense Forces in Al-Masaniah on May 12th. [10]

Although the attack didn't cause any damages and the quality of the explosives used looked primitive as previously published by "South24 Center", this is considered a remarkable development which enhances the accusations of coordination between AQAP and the Houthis. This denotes that AQAP in Abyan received [11] communication devices and electronic circles delivered by the Houthis in Sanaa, especially that the Houthi militias are skillful in using drones and have practical experience in this sector.
Previously, AQAP forged a number of prisoner exchange deals with the Houthis. However, special sources doubted the existence of such deals. They stressed that releasing AQAP’s detainees from the Houthi prisons came as part of the Houthi support to AQAP which has largely declined recently. [12]
Besides, the Houthis facilitated hosting a number of AQAP’s leaders in areas under their control. This means a complete protection for these leaders from being tracked. One has to take into consideration that the international counterterrorism war is always carried out by coordinating with local authorities while the Houthis exploit this file to fight their foes in South Yemen. According to an investigation published by "Akhbar Alaan", this matter already pushed several Yemenis to talk about a “collusion” between AQAP and the Houthis in more than one occasion. [13]
Although AQAP's Leader Khaled Batarfi focused in his latest speech on criticizing the Houthis, this has been linked to a pragmatic motif. By focusing on the Houthis, Batarfi aims at attracting and wooing the elements of the Yemeni tribes to join AQAP as well as neutralizing the anti-AQAP tribes by hinting at the possibility of cooperating with them to fight against the Houthis. 
It is known that despite the contact between AQAP and the Houthis, the first tends to use the “Rafidi card” for making mobilization within what it calls “Ahl Al-Sunnah” [Sunni people]. This happened on more than one occasion since the Houthis seized control of the state institutions in Sanaa in late 2014. 
The Muslim Brotherhood

Through the different AQAP’s narrative since the control of the Southern forces on Shabwa’s capital city Ataq, it can be said that it has a conviction along with the Islamic Islah party that the survival of one of them means the survival of the other and vice versa. 

The audio speech of AQAP’s leader Abu Ali Al-Hadrami, issued by Al-Malahim Foundation, following the Ataq events in August 2022, included a violent criticism against the Southern forces and the UAE. It also mentioned the name of former Governor Mohammed Saleh bin Adyo.[14] AQAP deemed what happened in Ataq as a foreign conspiracy against Islam. It called the tribes and the Islah Party to support its war against the Southern forces. 
AQAP experienced golden days in Shabwa during the control by the Islah Party on it. At that time, the governorate didn’t witness any AQAP’s operations given that the governorate’s authorities were not among its targets. However, AQAP’s operations have begun to escalate at a high pace after the former governor was ousted and the return of Shabwa Defense Forces as well as the arrival of the Giant Forces and the Southern Resistance to Beihan, Usaylan and Ayn to free them from the Houthis.
Earlier in the Abyan war in 2020, AQAP engaged in the ranks of the governmental forces at that time whose part of them were affiliated with the Islah Party in Shuqrah, Ahwar, Al-Mahfad and other in Abyan with an aim to face the Southern forces. 
Over 2019 and 2020, AQAP was safe from being tracked due to its penetration within the so-called governmental forces. He exploited this situation to rearrange its ranks after its losses over the past years. However, with the control of the Southern forces on these districts and purchasing AQAP in its main bastions, its situation began to complicate again in a worse manner. This led its leader to admit that they suffer from a choking financial crisis and to call the tribes to support them. 
AQAP’s decline to such a weak level is not in the interest of the Islah Party. It isn’t unlikely that the party moved to deliver the financial and human support. 
The Washington Institute fears that “Such calls could well appeal to younger members initially attracted to Islah’s tripartite identity of tribal, Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafist, although the organization leadership has repeatedly distinguished itself from AQAP and at one point possessed significant leverage within the internationally recognized government. Nevertheless, its current waning influence could tempt its members to turn towards a group more actively confronting the Houthis”. [15]
Over its history in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood has served as a hatching tool for AQAP. We notice that a big number of its leaders studied in Iman University in Sanaa. [16]
A life or death matter

A former jihadist believes that there are other factors behind the escalation of AQAP’s attacks in Yemen recently.
He told “South24 Center” that the “AQAP after being clamped down and its latest decline began to look at things as a life or death matter. It seeks to maintain its presence and movement areas or to make them at least dangerous areas related to security concerns so that the situation does not become stable for its opponents".
He said: "It is also related to proof of existence, especially after the military and security campaigns that targeted it in its most important bastions in South Yemen and drove them out for the first time in the history of the operations against it". He does not rule out that AQAP obtained support after its latest appeal to the tribes by its leader Khaled Batarfi, whether from internal or external bodies".
He added: "AQAP has largely declined but it has not died completely. It certainly wants something on the ground. He noted that there are probably certain circumstances it managed to exploit that are behind the return of the activities after the decline.
The security plans

The Southern security forces have recently announced a new operation [17] that led to purging 90% of Wadi Al-Khayala in Al-Mahfad district in Abyan. Moreover, a number of AQAP's members were killed and injured. Additionally, dozens of explosive devices and mines, and a workshop for making missiles were dismantled.

However, it seems that the relative absence of the well-crafted security plans, the lack of modern tracking and mine detection tools and the lack of the intelligence information contributed to the escalation of AQAP's attacks during March and April 2022. Sometimes, the Southern forces faced local complications with some armed men in the tribes to which some AQAP members belong. Armed clashes erupted during operations to raid AQAP’s suspected members in Abyan.
Furthermore, there are other challenges that prevent focusing on completing the mission of destroying AQAP definitely. The Southern forces on simultaneous fronts on the northern borders of South Yemen face sporadic battles with the Houthis for every now and then. Additionally, Saudi Arabia refuses the STC's attempts to expand the presence of its Southern forces towards Wadi Hadramout and Al-Mahra which constitute rich outlets for weapon smuggling operations and the presence of elements belonging to extremist groups.
Such measures undoubtedly distract any military or security missions against terrorism. This distraction may be the goal behind this given the former investment of this file amid fears that it can be considered as a big achievement for the Southern forces, especially that the external position for Yemen and South is determined according to the fears of the increase of the influence of the terrorist groups. 
Thus, any return of AQAP’s activities to Abyan would be in the interests of the foes of the Southern forces although they are the only ones that quickly made big achievements in it. Therefore, preventing the defeat of terrorism for this purpose requires supporting terrorist groups first and working against the forces that fight them. This can be understood from all developments experienced by the Southern arena over the last period. 
Will it further escalate?

Although the recent escalation of the group’s activities does not necessarily reflect the increase of its power but the exploitation of certain circumstances as previously mentioned, its future is also related to the continuity of the current circumstance and the nature of the incoming developments. 
AQAP has been on the brink of collapse over the past period but it now feeds on the available opportunities on the Southern arena. Wasting the opportunity to build on the achievements made in the counterterrorism field through the military and security operations in AQAP’s bastions may return the war to the starting point. 
Thus, confusing and scattering the forces that hold the responsibility of counterterrorism in Abyan, Shabwa and other areas are considered a big service for AQAP and have an impact which is bigger than delivering direct support to it. 

Accordingly, it can be said that the battle against AQAP in Abyan and Shabwa today is more important than ever. Thus, it is necessary to consider the following points:
- The operations against AQAP should continue at the same pace regardless of the developments on the Southern arena. 
- The new battle with AQAP should be different and unconventional as it no longer takes a fortress in certain places but carries out sudden operations in different places using sophisticated weapons. 
- The change in the method and the ways of moving between the governorate’s areas and between the governorates to evade the group’s ambushes. 
- Monitoring the borders between Abyan and Al-Bayda and between Hadramout and Shabwa.
- Enhancing work with local bodies and tribes as well as expanding the circle of cooperation in addition to providing a reasonable amount of humanitarian and economic services for villages and remote areas that served as rich bulwarks for AQAP.
- The mobilization of regional and international logistic, financial and information support in this regard as well as expanding coordinating with the international bodies interested in the counterterrorism file, foremost of which is the United States.

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


1- Prominent Southern Commander Killed in an AQAP Attack in Abyan (

2- AQAP claims responsibility for a drone attack (Twitter)

3- AQAP Leader Seeks Support for his Weaken Organization in Yemen (

4- "Arrows of the East"..A military operation in Abyan..details

5- Nation Shield Forces..a new Yemeni military formation led by Al-Alimi(

6- How do the Hadramu forces read the threats of the first Military District(

7- Another Round of Negotiations with the Houthis: AQAP as Potential Spoiler in Yemen (Washington Institute)

8- Will the Northern Forces Repeat the Hadramout Coast Scenario in Wadi Hadramout? (

9- The Declaration of the Southern National Pact and the Form of the Next State (

10- AQAP claims responsibility for a drone attack that targeted a location affiliated with Shabwa Defense Forces in Al-Masaniah, May12th (Twitter)

11- New details about the Support by the Houthi Militias to AQAP to hit the Yemeni forces YouTube

12- The Curious Tale of Houthi-AQAP Prisoner Exchanges in Yemen (


14- A Reading of «AQAP» Recent Message to Yemen's Tribes (

15- Another Round of Negotiations with the Houthis: AQAP as Potential Spoiler in Yemen (Washington Institute)

16- For example, AQAP's leaders Tariq al-Dahab, Nasr al-Ansi, and others, according to exclusive sources

17- News and reports - Southern forces pledge to continue cleansing Wadi Al-Khayala from terrorist groups (

South YemenAbyanSouthern ForcesAQAPKhaled BatarfiIslahAtaqShabwaHouthis