Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged in January 2009 from the union of two preexisting militant groups: al Qaeda in Yemen (AQY) and al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.1 Both organizations included several combatants that fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden. The groups enjoyed different levels of sustained success, however, with AQY establishing a more enduring foothold than its Saudi counterpart. In the early 1990s, al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia exploited economic and political turmoil and widespread discontent about the presence of Western troops by offering its militant campaign as a singular solution to myriad grievances. The group’s activities were reduced to residual levels after 2003, however, in the face of increased counterterrorism efforts and public alienation. As a result, many Saudi operatives crossed the border to fight alongside their counterparts in Yemen.

AQY capitalized on public dissatisfaction as well, and met greater success in Yemen. Following AQY’s 2000 USS Cole bombing and the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Yemeni government increased its counterterrorism efforts. By 2003, AQY was severely crippled, yet counterterrorism pressure soon abated. The United States focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Yemeni government struggled against a Shia uprising in the north and a socialist secessionist movement in the south. Taking advantage of a dip in counterterrorism pressure, AQY regrouped, and critical leadership was re-injected into the movement following the 2006 Sana’a prison break of 23 high-level al Qaeda operatives. In 2009, representatives from AQY and the remaining ranks of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia announced the merger of the two groups. Since then, AQAP has been al Qaeda’s most-active affiliate, securing world attention with attempted bombings of a passenger airline on Christmas Day in 2009 and two cargo planes in October 2010. Under the cover of Yemen’s recent political upheaval, the group may grow stronger and more dangerous still.

Samuel Lindo, Michael Schoder, Tyler Jones