Soldiers waiting outside Fort Cavazos (formerly Fort Hood) military base in Texas in 2009 after Major Nidal Malik Hasan, inspired by AQAP’s ideology, opened fire on his colleagues, killing 13 people and wounding more than 32 (AFP).

Is Yemen's AQAP no longer a transcontinental threat?


Sat, 20-04-2024 01:10 PM, Aden

It is not unlikely that Yemen will turn into a major hub for AQAP again with the Al-Qaeda’s weakness in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the killing of its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and assumption of leadership by Ahmed Saif al-Adel, who lives in Iran.

Ibrahim Ali* (South24)

It has been quite some time since Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda) launched cross-border attacks. Between 2009 and 2010, the AQAP carried out a number of terror operations abroad, including in the US and UK, to the point that it turned into an external threat rather than an internal threat. During that period, American and British attention was more focused on this Al-Qaeda branch compared to the other ones, though the main organization was in Afghanistan and Pakistan and despite its former leader, Osama bin Laden, being still alive. From this standpoint, the United States (US) Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) considered the AQAP the most dangerous threat among all the branches of the organization and focused its security, military, and intelligence actions on this basis [1].

The external threat posed by the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda gave the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the opportunity to curry favor with the US Administration, as security and military cooperation between Sanaa and Washington escalated in an unprecedented way, and most importantly, financial support for Saleh’s regime doubled, rising to $150 million dollars annually [2]. This factor presented an opportunity for the opposition to accuse Saleh of exploiting the AQAP issue. However, the Americans had no choice but to deal with him, as Saleh took complete control of everything related to this subject; and notwithstanding allegations by his opponents, and even Washington’s doubts, there was no evidence to corner him, despite supporting clues [3].

At the level of armaments, the Central Security Forces, headed by Saleh’s nephew Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, obtained advanced equipment and weapons from Washington. Later, US media outlets revealed that the weapons given to Saleh’s regime as part of the War on Terror cooperation were being used against the Houthis in Saada Governorate [4].

In practice, the United Kingdom (UK) began establishing four counter-terrorism centers in four Yemeni governorates, namely Abyan, Marib, Shabwa, and Hadramout, but the outbreak of popular protests demanding the overthrow of the Saleh regime in early 2011 prevented the completion of this project. The protests affected the course of the war on terrorism in general [5].

AQAP’s External Operations

Prior to 2011, AQAP had carried out a number of major external operations, such as an attempt to assassinate the then Saudi Assistant Interior Minister for Security Affairs, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and sending parcel bombs to the UK. This was in addition to an attempt to blow up a passenger plane in the US airspace via a Nigerian suicide bomber named Omar Al-Farouq Abdulmuttalab, who is referred to as the “underwear bomber”. However, alert passengers foiled his attempt to set off the bomb. These attempts caused a global shock, and required the doubling of security procedures and measures at a number of airports in countries across the world, besides the intensification of counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen in coordination with the Saleh regime [6].

Although AQAP was not at the peak of its strength during that period, compared to its situation in the years 2012, 2013, and 2014, it was nevertheless able to carry out its most important cross-border operations. The organization was able to take advantage of security gaps in airports, besides also possessing plastic explosives that were capable of bypassing screening devices at airports, as happened in the operations of Omar Al-Farouq Abdulmuttalab and Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri against Bin Nayef. In both the cases, the powerful explosive used, pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), and the detonators, were linked to Ibrahim al-Asiri (a Saudi national) also known as Al-Qaeda’s “genius bomb-maker”. His death was announced in 2017 due to a US bombing, but the organization has not confirmed or denied it to this day. The Saudi explosives expert, the elder brother of Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, was one of Washington’s most wanted members of AQAP [7].

While they did not repeat their mode of operations of 2009 and 2010 in the following years, the organization was able to carry out operations through remote influence. AQAP used its English-language online magazine ‘Inspire’ to recruit individuals in the West to carry out “individual jihad” or lone wolf attacks in their home countries. Yemeni-American cleric and leading Al-Qaeda preacher Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki used his numerous online sermons and propaganda videos to spread his terror message around the world. He was Al-Qaeda’s leading English-language propagandist and had a huge internet presence. Another Al-Qaeda influencer was Pakistani-American Samir ibn Zafar Khan, who left his comfortable family home in the US for Yemen to start ‘Inspire’, a glossy magazine for jihadists, as he believed that waging a media war was as important as the battles with guns on the ground. As the editor and publisher of ‘Inspire’, he featured political and how-to articles written in comfortable American vernacular, with his dedication to jihad and Al-Qaeda and his desire for "martyrdom" as recurring themes in his writings. Both were killed in a US drone strike on September 30, 2011 in Yemen [8].

However, the duo continued to inspire terrorism from beyond the grave for many years. In January 2015, Cherif Kouachi, one of the two French-Algerian brothers who carried out the attack on French satirical magazine ’Charlie Hebdo‘, killing 12 people, said that he had received funding from the leader of Yemen's AQAP, Anwar al-Awlaki. He told this to French BFM TV by telephone shortly before he and his older brother Said Kouachi were killed by police while holed up inside a printing shop in a Parisian suburb.

In a recording broadcast by the channel Cherif is heard saying: “I, Cherif Kouachi, was sent by AQAP. I went there and Anwar al-Awlaki was the one who provided me with funding" [9].

Likewise, in the April 2013 US Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Anzorovich Tsarnaev, a Chechen-American, who is accused of carrying out the bombings along with his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed by security forces, admitted that the bombing plan initially specified the Fourth of July, which is the national holiday of the US, for the operation.

Investigators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings found that al-Awlaki had been an important factor in persuading the Tsarnaev brothers of the necessity of violence—and even had provided, via his oversight of ‘Inspire’ magazine of AQAP, instructions for making pressure-cooker bombs with explosive powder from fireworks.

Dzhokhar, then 19, had immigrated with his family from Chechnya (Chechen Republic) to the US. He told investigators that he and his brother watched with emotion the funeral ceremony of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a US drone strike in September 2011, and that they decided to carry out the attacks using pressure cookers in one of the largest US cities.

Prosecutors said he was a self-radicalized jihadist who pored over militant writings, including an article, ‘How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom’, which was found on his laptop and other devices, downloaded from ‘Inspire’ magazine [10].

But much before these operations, in 2009 al-Awlaki's influence had reached the US Army, when he was able to sway the thinking of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, (of Palestinian origin), who opened fire on his colleagues at the Fort Cavazos (formerly Fort Hood) military base in Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 32 others. Later, al-Awlaki, who was working as an imam in the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque located in Washington DC, confirmed that Nidal began emailing him more than a year before the shooting, and asked him if such an act was considered jihad. Major Hasan had sent 10 to 20 messages to al-Awlaki, investigators said [11].

Decline in External Operations

While the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in the raid on Al-Jawf governorate have been confirmed, there is no accurate information yet about the fate of Saudi bombmaker expert Ibrahim al-Asiri. But what is certain is that the organization’s external operations declined after 2013, even though ’Inspire‘ magazine continued to be published. During the years 2013 and 2014, AQAP carried out operations in Yemen that exceeded in quantity and quality what it had carried out since its founding in 2009.

It is important to point out here that AQAP’s external operations were carried out at separate intervals, and it is difficult to say that they declined during one year, and in the following years did not witness operations of this kind. After 2014, it appears that there was a suspension of its activities and not a decline. The organization may have wanted to take advantage of the developments in Yemen after Saudi Arabia announced a military operation against the Houthis in March 2015. Before the Saudi-led operation, AQAP was the primary target of the war in Yemen. After that, it became the secondary objective. Amid this backdrop, the organization appeared keen not to want to draw the attention of the West to itself by carrying out terror operations at a time of the Saudi war on the Houthis, especially in light of Western warnings about the impact of Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis in Yemen on the issue of counter-terrorism [12].

However, as the Saudi-led Coalition war in Yemen entered a state of stagnation over the years, AQAP resumed its internal activities and attempts to carry out external operations. In December 2019, it carried out the ’Pensacola‘ operation in the US in which a Royal Saudi Air Force officer, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, launched an armed attack inside the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, killing three men and injuring eight others. Two months later, AQAP leader Qassim al-Raimi released a video taking credit for the attack. The video included a death notice that Alshamrani had written on his iPhone Notes app and sent to AQAP’s leadership. According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), investigations revealed that Alshamrani was in contact with AQAP regarding carrying out a “special operation” [13].

The Killing of Senior Leaders

An important factor that led to the suspension of its external operations and most internal activities after 2014 is related to the killing of most of its prominent leaders after this date, along with the divisions that arose within the organization, coupled with the efforts of the Southern Armed Forces in successfully combatting the group and expelling it from its most prominent strongholds in the governorates of Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramout.

If we refer to the names of the AQAP leaders who died, we will find that they were the ones who planned most of the internal and cross-border operations. After 2014, US drones were able to eliminate most of the leaders of the first and second ranks of Yemen's AQAP, such as its leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi (in June 2015 in Hadramout), his successor Qasim al-Raymi (in January 2020 in Al Bayda governorate), senior Sharia official Harith al-Nadhari (January 2015), senior commander Mamoun Hatem (in May 2015 in Hadramout), Jalal al-Marqashi (February 2016 in Shabwa), and many other senior members.

Despite the elimination of the masterminds and planners of AQAP's operations in Yemen, both internal and external, can it be concluded that the organization has really ceased to be a transcontinental threat?

Is AQAP No Longer an External Threat?

Given the losses suffered by AQAP during the last decade, it could be said that it has ceased to pose an external threat, and has also greatly weakened as an internal threat. However, the recent developments relating to the organization suggest otherwise.

Khaled Batarfi, who took as AQAP leader after the death of Qasim al-Raymi in January 2020, was the last leader of the organization who belonged to the old jihadists. AQAP announced Batarfi's death on March 10, 2024, and announced Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki as his successor. It did not give the cause of Batarfi’s death. His tenure as head witnessed an important development-- seen in the strengthening of ties with Iran, after the death of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri (in a US drone strike in July 2022) that saw Egyptian Ahmed Saif al-Adel assuming the leadership. Saif al-Adel was released in 2015, as part of a deal between AQAP and Iran that demanded the release of a kidnapped Iranian diplomat. However, Saif al-Adel preferred to stay in Iran and said he had secured Tehran’s support for ongoing operations against Western interests. Saif al-Adel sent his son to Yemen, and not to any other country like Somalia where there is a branch of the organization [14]. Private sources report that the AQAP received great support from Iran, and this was reflected in AQAP’s activities that had declined significantly following the operations carried out by the Southern Armed Forces inside its strongholds in a number of governorates. In some of its attacks, the organization used - for the first time - drones and Soviet self-propelled ’Grad‘ rockets [15]. Prior to this, the organization had appealed to the Yemeni tribes for support, and publicly acknowledged that it was suffering from a stifling financial crunch. However, its situation changed suddenly. Accordingly, it is not unlikely that its operations will witness an increase during the coming period [16].

On the external level, and in light of the Iranian support, the organization’s operations may return to the forefront again, although not to a great extent, as Iran is very good at playing with tools, as we have seen in the Red Sea operations carried out by the Houthis, and the operations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is important to point out here that the Gaza war has also played an important role in bringing closer the views of Iran and AQAP, and between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood [17].

It is true that AQAP will not be a Sunni version of the Houthi group with regard to working for Iran, especially with Saad bin Atef taking over the leadership of the organization, succeeding Batarfi [18], but the continued support to it from Tehran’s allies in Yemen signifies its return as a major threat internally and abroad. It also means that the successes achieved by all previous counter-terrorism efforts will be in vain, if those gains are not fortified with broad logistical, military and intelligence support.

In addition, it is not unlikely that Yemen will turn into a major hub for AQAP again with the Al-Qaeda’s weakness in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the killing of its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and assumption of leadership by Ahmed Saif al-Adel, who lives in Iran. This means that the Yemeni organization may turn into more of a threat than ever.

*Ibrahim Ali
Ibrahim Ali is a 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

[1] CIA sees increased threat in Yemen (

[2] America increases its aid to Yemen to more than $150 (

[3] Armed men control several cities in southern Yemen... and the opposition accuses Saleh of handing over “Jaar” to “Al-Qaeda” | Al-Masry Al-Youm (

[4] United States: Anti-terrorism aid provided to Yemen must be investigated Human Rights Watch (

[5] From the Field Marshal to the Ambassador... This is how the Yemenis adapted to the American occupation of their country (

[6] Why Has International Interest in the AQAP Declined? (

[7] Two years later: Trump confirms the killing of Al-Asiri in Yemen (

[8] Washington and Sanaa confirm the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki - BBC News Arabic

[9] Video: One of the perpetrators of the “Charlie Hebdo” attack says that he received funding from Al-Qaeda in Yemen (

[10] Boston.. The bombings were “inspired” by the Yemen base - Al-Watan Saudi newspaper (

[11] FBI official: Hasan should have been asked about e-mails with radical cleric | CNN Politics

[12] According to a source close to the organization.

[13] Mohammed Al-Shamrani: American authorities say that the Saudi officer in Florida was cooperating with Al-Qaeda - BBC News Arabic

[14] Leadership from Iran: How was Saif al-Adl able to control Al-Qaeda in Yemen - Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies (

[15] Research Paper: How and From Where Has AQAP Received Weapons? (

 [16] Acknowledging the organization’s weakness... Khaled Batarfi appeals to the tribes to support Al-Qaeda in Yemen -

[17] Will the Gaza War Deepen the Old Rapprochement between Iran and AQAP? (

 [18] The New AQAP Leader: The Choice of Necessity (

YemenAQAPSouthern forcesISISAl-QaedaOsama bin LadenSaad bin AtefKhaled BatarfiExtremismHouthisWadi HadramoutSTCUAESaudi Arabia