Designed by South24 Center

Will the Gaza War Deepen the Old Rapprochement between Iran and AQAP?


Sun, 28-01-2024 10:06 PM, Aden

Based on the previous rapprochement between Iran and its arm in Yemen on one hand and AQAP on the other, which relied on what is like a convergence of interests, it can be concluded that the Gaza war will establish a reconciliation based on principles. 

*Ibrahim Ali (South24)

Earlier this month, the ’ISIS‘ claimed responsibility for the January 3 twin suicide bombings in the Iranian city of Kerman which killed around 100 people and injured dozens of others, including children, who were visiting the burial site of former Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani to mark his fourth death anniversary. The Quds Force commander was assassinated in Iraq in 2020 by a US drone. 

Although ’ISIS‘ adopts the same terror ideology as Al-Qaeda, its stance differs when it comes to Iran and Shiites in general. For example, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP – or Al Qaeda in Yemen) rejects these kinds of operations against those affiliated with Shiites. 

In 2014, AQAP launched a unilateral operation against Houthi demonstrators in Sanaa 1. However, the group’s subsequent disagreement with ’ISIS‘ pushed it to adopt a less radical operational policy. This was aimed to create an impression that it is different from the ’ISIS‘ or to highlight the magnitude of dissimilarity between them. 

Prior to the discord, AQAP was keen to emulate the ISIS’ operations, including the most extremist ones. In 2014, the AQAP for the first time slaughtered some soldiers in ’Howtat Al-Habib Zein‘ in Wadi Hadramout 2. The ISIS used to carry out similar operations daily in Iraq. Storming camps and military areas in Yemen were almost a replica of the operations in Iraq. AQAP was keen to emulate the series of operations entitled ‘The Demolition of Fences’ before 2015. 

However, it is remarkable that AQAP hasn’t only ceased ISIS-like operations in the Houthi areas but it has completely suspended its activities there. Even skirmishes between the two parties in Al-Bayda (central Yemen) after 2015 stopped completely in 2021 following the organization's withdrawal from its last strongholds in the governorate. Barring South Yemen’s governorates, AQAP hasn’t returned to Al-Bayda or to remote areas there to carry out flash operations against the Houthis, although it is capable of doing that.

Despite the painful blows delivered to AQAP by the Southern forces in Abyan and the fact that the noose around it was tightened as never before, the organization was keen to survive. It created new methods to maintain a foothold in some of the governorate’s rugged mountains. 

The AQAP’s stance or policy toward the Houthis stirs many questions. This is particularly related to the fact that in previous statements the AQAP had used an extremist tone against the Houthis. Furthermore, the organization carried out some operations against members of the ’Hashemite‘ families in Riyam which is part of Radaa in Al-Bayda between 2013-2014.

The ’keyword’

In this regard, Iran can be described as the “keyword” behind this policy starting from 2014. This began with the Houthi decision to release some AQAP members and leaders in return for the release of the Iranian Cultural Attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Sanaa who was kidnapped by the organization. For its part, Iran released AQAP’s prominent Egyptian leader Ahmed Saif al-Adl as part of the deal 3

This deal had a positive impact on the security situation in the areas controlled by the Houthis. It seems that this was part of Iran’s objective behind its contact with AQAP. It led to the cessation of AQAP’s activities in Houthi areas, as the two parties continued with their deals to exchange abducted persons with prisoners over the next years.

The AQAP is therefore undoubtedly beholden to Iran for releasing most of its detainees, including senior leaders, from Houthi prisons who had been arrested during the reigns of ’Ali Abdullah Saleh‘ and ’Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi. In 2021, the Yemeni Internationally Recognized Government submitted a report to the UN Security Council which pointed to 250 AQAP prisoners who had been released by the Houthis. 

Besides responding to Iran’s directions, the Houthis also dealt with AQAP prisoners in a manner that violated the commitments of the Global War on Terrorism. This was also due to the US providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, launched on March 26, 2015.

The issue here is not limited to the release of AQAP prisoners, but also about the way in which they were treated. The AQAP’s prisoners received better treatment, in terms of food, detention rooms and so on.

After the Gaza war

Building on the moderate AQAP stance toward the Houthis and Iran’s engagement in the rapprochement between the two parties, the latest war in Gaza has emerged as a new factor that deepens this convergence. Moreover, AQAP’s stance doesn’t differ much from the Islah Party (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood) which has clearly endorsed the Houthi operations in the Red Sea.

It is important to indicate that AQAP has been close to the Islah Party over the past years. This rapprochement was a result of AQAP’s insistence on moving away from the line adopted by ISIS. Furthermore, both AQAP and the Islah Party have met at the point of launching a war against UAE and the Southern forces affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) as they view them as common enemies for their counterterrorism role. The Iranian involvement in this matter can’t be ignored.

With regard to the Gaza war factor, it is important to point to AQAP’s massive connection with it. The organization issued a statement after the October 7, 2023 Al-Aqsa Flood operation against Israel in which it praised Hamas and its armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades. However, it didn't mention the Iranian support and Tehran’s relationship with the Palestinian group. This is different from ISIS which regards Hamas’ relationship with Iran as a major point of disagreement, according to its media spokesperson. 4

Based on the previous rapprochement between Iran and its arm in Yemen on one hand and the AQAP on the other, which relied on their convergence of interests, it can be concluded that the Gaza war will establish a reconciliation based on principles. It can be said that if AQAP has activists and journalists active on social media platforms, we will see the same spontaneous positions adopted by Islahi supporters toward the Houthi operations. This is naturally a result of the stance toward Hamas which applies to supporters affiliated with Iran at a time when the Palestinian movement faces an existential threat.

There is no doubt that the US-UK attacks against the Houthi targets on January 12 may enhance the goals of both parties (the Houthis and AQAP) and push toward more coordination and cooperation between them.

Saif al-Adl

Some information reveals that Saif al-Adl has played a pivotal role in the rapprochement between Iran and Al-Qaeda. He believes that the war against the West and the group’s arms in the region require a strategic alliance with Tehran.

If this information is correct, it can be said that the Gaza war as well as Iran’s direct role in it and through its arms in the region will deepen Saif al-Adl’s belief. His perspective will also be enhanced within Al-Qaeda which is already prepared for that.

This convergence will appear more clearly in Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch. AQAP is its strongest branch and has the credit of releasing Ahmed Saif al-Adl. Moreover, AQAP is located in a country that has one of Iran’s strong arms (the Houthis).

The latest designation

The US announced the re-designation of the Houthis as a ’Specially Designated Global Terrorist‘ group. Although the latest designation is linked to the continuous Houthi attacks against commercial ships in the Red Sea, this would enhance rapprochement between the group and AQAP. The designation serves as practical proof for AQAP that there is real hostility between the Houthis and the United States. The designation displays Washington as a “common enemy” of the AQAP and Houthis in Yemen. This would also likely advance the relationship between the two parties from a mere rapprochement to operational coordination. Al-Qaeda has long experience in the wars against the United States. The Houthis could seek to exploit this by supplying the organization with capabilities and support.

1 By December 2014, AQAP had claimed responsibility for 149 attacks against the Houthis in 14 governorates in less than 90 days.

2 In August 2014, AQAP abducted and killed 14 soldiers as they were returning home from duty on a bus.

3 In 2015, Iran released five senior members of Al Qaeda, including Saif al-Adl, a senior member of Al Qaeda’s ruling body, known as the Shura Council, who oversaw the organization immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011. Iran’s release of the five men was part of a prisoner swap in March 2015 with AQAP, the group holding an Iranian diplomat, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht. Nikbakht was kidnapped in Sana in July 2013. The other four men released by Iran were Abdul Khayr al-Misri, an Egyptian who formerly headed Al Qaeda’s foreign relations council; Abul Qassam, a Jordanian who was a deputy to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the organization that later became the Islamic State; Sari Shibab, a Jordanian operative; and Abu Mohamed al-Misri, an Egyptian who helped orchestrate Al Qaeda’s major attacks before Sept. 11, 2001, according to a NYT report).

4 On Jan 4, the Islamic State's al-Furqan media released a new speech from Islamic State spokesman Abu Hudhayfa al-Ansari, titled "And kill them wherever you find them", focused primarily on the Israel-Gaza war. One of the key talking points was the denunciation of the various 'nationalist' Palestinian factions and those like Hamas aligned with the broader Iranian-led 'resistance' axis, which it said is being utilized by Iran as a Shi'ite expansionist project that is no less dangerous if not more so to Islam and Muslims than the state of Israel.

* Ibrahim Ali is the pseudonym of a researcher who specializes in armed group affairs. He has requested anonymity for personal reasons.

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic