AQAP Ansar al-Shari`a and the Struggle for Yemen

The may 21, 2012, suicide attack The bombing also revealed more on Yemeni soldiers parading parochial motives. In addition to in Sana`a’s al-Sabin Square retaliation, Ansar al-Shari`a claimed marked a turning point in to avenge “the demonstrators and all Yemen’s struggle against al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its subsidiary, Ansar al-Shari`a. Coming two weeks after Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s pledge to purge terrorists from “every district, village, and place,” the perpetrators cast the bombing as a retaliatory strike. “The primary target of this blessed operation was the defense minister of the Sana`a regime and his corrupt entourage,” proclaimed Ansar al-Shari`a’s Madad News Agency. “It came in response to the unjust war launched by the Sana`a regime’s forces in cooperation with the American and Saudi forces.”
Muslims, who tasted the scourge of the Yemeni central security forces” during the Arab Spring protests. Recalling the violent crackdown on protestors in Sana`a and the alleged torture of Islamist activists, the communiqué justified the slaughter of Yemeni soldiers in populist terms while appealing to citizens who survived similar “massacres” at the hands of the previous regime.
This reasoning minimized global jihad while emphasizing national struggle. Despite its Salafi-jihadi boilerplate, however, Ansar al-Shari`a appeared far more concerned with co-opting the “recent revolution” in Yemen than resisting the unholy U.S.-Saudi alliance.

This emphasis on national struggle reflects a phase shift in al-Qa`ida’s messaging and methods. As Barak Barfi and Ryan Evans have observed, AQAP eschews tribal domination in favor of more nuanced efforts to capture indigenous support. Other studies reinforce this point, explaining how “strong norms of retribution, tribal coherence, and force of arms” limit its ability to “seize support through repression.” Despite being rooted in Yemen’s culture, society, and tribal system, the movement maintains its rhetorical and operational focus on the far enemy—underscored by the recent attempt to bomb a passenger aircraft bound for the United States.6 These parallel approaches could ultimately diverge, creating tensions between national objectives and international ambitions. For the moment, however, AQAP has proven remarkably adept at reconciling the ideological dictates of global jihad with the practical realities of local insurgency.
AQAP is, and still remains, a conglomerate. Conceived in a January 2009 merger between al-Qa`ida cells operating in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, its members brought different perspectives and experiences to their regional franchise. Some, like former Guantanamo detainees Said Ali al- Shihri and Mohamed Atiq Awayd al- Harbi, fled to Yemen following their repatriation and failed rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia.7 Others, including Yemenis such as Nasir al-Wahayshi, served with Usama bin Ladin in Afghanistan before bringing the jihad back home.8 Proven in war and hardened by prison, this cohort rejected the informal accommodation between their Arab Afghan predecessors and Yemen’s security services and called for jihad against the Yemeni regime.
AQAP also drew lessons directly from other al-Qa`ida franchises. Like al- Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI), the movement established its own provisional Islamic state. Like al-Qa`ida’s central leadership, it courted religious and tribal leaders with longstanding grievances, encouraging conservative clerics like Abdul Majid al-Zindani to challenge the Yemeni regime and prominent shaykhs like Tariq al-Fadhli to turn against it. Despite these similarities, however, AQAP built its movement from the ground up rather than the top down. Anxious to avoid an indigenous uprising similar to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, al-Wahayshi pursued a three-pronged strategy of engagement, empowerment, and dependency among Yemen’s tribes. through Ansar al-Shari`a, which was reportedly founded in 2009.13 Operating under its own banner, the movement issues communiqués, operates media outlets, and generates propaganda aimed at Yemen’s Sunni tribesmen. In doing so, Ansar al-Shari`a has abandoned the elitist, quasi-jurisprudential rhetoric espoused by al-Qa`ida purists in favor of a more populist (and often parochial) message.15 As senior AQAP official Abu Zubayr Adel al-Abab observed, “the name Ansar al-Shari`a is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work, to tell people about our work and goals, and [to show] that we are on the path of Allah.”
Tribal leaders confirm this subsidiary relationship. Despite its unique brand, AQAP uses Ansar al-Shari`a to promote its activities in tribal areas, legitimize its members as “supporters” of Islamic law, and elicit popular support without implicating the controversial al-Qa`ida brand.17 Combined with its direct appeals to demonstrators and Arab youth, this

approach suggests an attempt to shelter AQAP’s hard core within a broader, organically derived popular front. As Ansar al-Shari`a leader Jalal Muhsin Balidi al-Murqoshi explained, “We want to implement the Shari`a of Allah in [Abyan] and redress injustices…our goal is to circulate the Islamic model like the Taliban who did justice and provided security [in Afghanistan].” Empowerment, in turn, comes in the form of economic inducement and public works. Individual recruiting is the primary vehicle. According to tribal leaders from al-Jawf, Lahij, and Marib, Ansar al-Shari`a targets Yemeni youth with the promise of a new rifle, a new car, and salaries as high as $400 per month.19 The organization reportedly derives these revenues by raiding public institutions, including banks, police garrisons, and government offices. Other sources include tolls charged at checkpoints for “policing” the roads and, to a lesser extent, donations routed through Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia. Whatever the source of these funds, salaries incentivize recruiting in tangible, sometimes irresistible ways. For unemployed teenagers with little education and even less status, joining the insurgency offers the material and financial trappings of manhood. For underemployed adults, an Ansar al- Shari`a salary provides a means of lifting their families out of poverty. With nearly half of Yemen’s population surviving on less than two dollars per day, al-Qa`ida’s compensation offers a level of security and sustenance that many tribal leaders cannot provide. Empowerment also operates at the village or district level. In communities plagued by chronic drought or hunger, tribal elders have reportedly recruited
“In communities plagued by chronic drought or hunger, tribal elders have reportedly recruited fighters for Ansar al- Shari`a in exchange for new wells, new irrigation systems and even food.”
fighters for Ansar al-Shari`a in exchange for new wells, new irrigation systems and even food.26 Current international humanitarian assistance programs do little to disrupt this cycle, with most of the direct aid consumed by refugees in Aden displaced by the fighting in nearby Abyan and Lahij provinces.
Bilateral development assistance programs are similarly problematic. According to one European diplomat, foreigners kidnapped by tribesmen in contested regions like Marib and al- Jawf are now less likely to be ransomed to their governments in the traditional manner and much more likely to be sold to AQAP.28
This shift underscores the extent of local desperation and jihadist infiltration in Yemen’s rural areas. Yet it also illustrates the influence AQAP exercises through networks of mutual dependency. By conditioning the provision of salaries, public services, and other benefits on loyalty, the syndicate discourages its partners from pursuing alternative sources of patronage.29 A similar calculus operates among some tribal leaders. By identifying and empowering weak shaykhs in isolated communities,
AQAP is able to operate through certain tribal structures without resorting to overt coercion.30 Instead, the potential loss of status, resources, and influence cements alliances and deters defectors, allowing AQAP to manage tribal equities in a manner that serves its evolving needs.
Ironically, foreign efforts to bolster tribal leaders aggravate rather than mitigate this problem. Supported by generous stipends from Saudi Arabia and enriched by their commercial ties to the Gulf States, tribal confederation leaders and paramount shaykhs are increasingly abandoning their local base for greater proximity to the seat of power in Sana`a.32 This migration fosters isolation and fragmentation in some districts, effectively removing shaykhs from their traditional role as local benefactors, mediators and, when necessary, military leaders.33 It also creates resentment, sidelining lesser shaykhs while forcing them to contend with levels of drought, poverty, and population growth that often exceed their own limited resources.34 Faced with these conditions, accommodating or even allying with AQAP can become the best of several poor options.
In addition to establishing networks of dependency, AQAP also sets the tribes against themselves.

Yet at the same time, AQAP actively exploits the prospect of inter-tribal conflict. By deploying members of one tribe into the territory of another, AQAP guarantees that any action against its own forces will be met with retaliation from its ranks and the victims’ own tribesmen. For example, according to one source, nearly 70% of the Ansar al-Shari`a recruits currently fighting in Abyan Province come from central and northern regions like al- Jawf and Marib, and thus have no tribal ties to the region where they currently operate.38 Similar patterns are also evident in northern Yemen’s Sa`da Province, where sources report an influx of young outsiders in the increasingly frequent skirmishes between AQAP and the Zaydi Huthi rebels.
These deployments across provincial and kinship boundaries upset the natural equilibrium among Yemen’s tribes. Fearful of provoking their stronger neighbors, weaker shaykhs become less likely to challenge AQAP’s presence in their traditional sphere of influence.40 As a result, many are shifting the burden of securing remote regions to Yemen’s fractious transitional government.
The deployments may also increase compliance and unit cohesion. By isolating new recruits from their traditional social and kinship structures, AQAP is enforcing its ideological and operational control.
This forbearance allows AQAP to find sanctuaries, build training camps, and establish de facto territorial control.43 Based from its mountain stronghold at Azzan in Shabwa Province, the movement now operates in at least 12 of Yemen’s 21 provinces, including the capital.44 In some places it even governs, using armed militias and Shari`a courts to prosecute criminals, protect private property, and establish a brutal yet predictable sense of order.45 In doing so, the movement exhibits a pragmatic approach that has more in common with the Taliban’s operations in Afghanistan than it does with Usama bin Ladin’s globalized, deterritorialized jihad.
The seizure of Jaar in Abyan Province is a case in point. According to southern leaders, AQAP operated in Abyan’s Khanfar district for nearly three years before mounting a coordinated operation. Endemic poverty and the absence of strong tribal structures facilitated these operations, allowing them to develop a measure of sympathy and support within the local population. In March 2011, militants seized the “7th of October” munitions factory near Jaar, carting off cases of ammunition and gunpowder. Subsequent raids on military garrisons across Abyan Province yielded rockets, mortars, and other small arms, as well as Russian-made armored personnel carriers and T-55 tanks.
Working with these assets, the syndicate established two new training camps—one in a remote agricultural area approximately three miles outside Jaar, and a second in Shokrah, some 19 miles away.51 According to eyewitness accounts, more than 50 senior AQAP fighters relocated from Azzan to this newly-styled “Emirate of Waqar” in the summer and autumn of 2011. The new stronghold was reportedly so secure that al-Wahayshi and other senior AQAP commanders would commute between Jaar and Azzan on a weekly basis.
The Battle of Zinjibar campaign reflected a similar pattern of resource extraction and territorial consolidation. Supplied from positions in Jaar, an initial force of 300 Ansar al-Shari`a fighters attacked Abyan’s provincial capital on May 27, 2011, and seized effective control of the city the following day. As in Jaar and other locations, militants sacked abandoned military and police garrisons, seizing ammunition, heavy weapons, and other military hardware from the army’s besieged 25th Mechanized Brigade.53 They also looted the unguarded provincial bank, carting away billions of Yemeni rials to finance their operations across the country.54 According to a recent interview with AQAP Commander Jalal al-Beledi, the organization’s expenditures in Abyan alone ran nearly $300,000 each month.55
The Zinjibar campaign demonstrated AQAP’s ability to seize territory and establish effective control, even in the midst of a government counteroffensive.
According to eyewitness reports from within the city, militants established a da`wa center to indoctrinate the local population and Shari`a courts to impose justice.56 From the execution of alleged government collaborators to the public crucifixion of a man accused of homosexuality, AQAP’s hierarchy augmented Ansar al-Shari`a’s prior emphasis on tribal engagement and economic inducement with a campaign of institutionalized intimidation reminiscent of the Taliban regime. During the spring 2012 Yemeni counteroffensive, however, AQAP withdrew many of its forces to Azzan and adopted more traditional guerrilla tactics58—measures designed to retain the propaganda value of their forward presence while preserving their forces in the face of intensified airstrikes and a coordinated assault by five army brigades.
Other AQAP operations suggest a strategy of territorial exclusion. One notable example is the January 2012 seizure of Radda in Bayda Province. Initially the offensive seemed more symbolic than strategic. After looting the bank, flying their flag from the local citadel, and tagging buildings with jihadist graffiti, the militants entered into negotiations with government- appointed mediators and withdrew their forces one week later. The political message was clear, however. With Radda located adjacent to a highway linking Sana`a with eight southern provinces, the operation signaled AQAP’s capacity to isolate Yemen’s transitional government from the contested southern and western regions where its writ remains weak.
Each of these operations underscores AQAP’s home field advantage. Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan, or other locations on Islam’s geographic periphery, AQAP’s fighters speak the local language, understand the local culture, and are grounded in the local society. Even the movement’s Saudi members are integrating into Yemeni tribal structures, marrying the daughters of sympathetic tribesmen in a manner recalling the kinship bonds Bin Ladin forged with his Taliban hosts.
The importance of these relationships should not be overstated, however. Although some Western observers view marriage as an instrument for expanding and consolidating political influence,62 Yemeni sources report that AQAP cadres marry primarily within their own ranks. To the extent that weddings represent a form of coalition- building, the coalitions in question are between the new generation of globalized jihadists, represented by al-Wahayshi and the late Anwar al- `Awlaqi, and Arab Afghan veterans like Tariq al-Fadhli.
The fact that men like al-Wahayshi and al-Fadhli would memorialize their alliance through marriage suggests diversity within AQAP and the desire to overcome political, generational, and other differences. Such differences do not diminish the unifying influence of Salafi-jihadi ideology, nor do they disrupt the operational hierarchy between AQAP and its Ansar al- Shari`a subsidiary. Yet they do indicate more nuanced and complex dynamics within the movement itself. Despite AQAP’s efforts to present a unitary, undifferentiated front, four discernible elements still persist.
The first element is comprised of ideological purists. Dominated by Saudi nationals, these militants tend to view jihad as an ethical rather than political struggle. As a result, they tend to embrace Bin Ladin’s emphasis on provocative operations against high- value targets. The August 27, 2009, assassination attempt against Saudi Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Na’if is a case in point. Although the operation failed, bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri’s decision to recruit, train, and sacrifice his own brother demonstrated an unprecedented degree of ruthlessness and resolve. More significantly, it demonstrated a desire to foment revolution through a public, self-negating act. Preoccupied by high rhetoric and high drama, the purists treat Yemen as a staging ground for educating the masses and reviving al-Qa`ida’s global operations.
The second element is composed of political pragmatists. Although no less virulent in ideology, its members seek concrete, incremental gains that expand their influence, undermine their adversaries, and consolidate their power. Where the purists revere Bin Ladin and emphasize global operations, the pragmatists model their campaign on the Taliban and seek deeper indigenous traction. Latent nationalism may also inform their outlook.
According to some local observers, Yemeni nationals who were either born or educated in Saudi Arabia dominate this faction. Although somewhat removed from the rigors of tribal life, they share the belief that Yemen is a prize to be won in its own right.
The third element encompasses Yemen’s indigenous Salafists. Some, like al-Fadhli, are veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War with lingering personal and political grievances.67 Others are allegedly holdovers from the 1994 Yemeni Civil War and, to a lesser extent, the now-defunct Aden Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA). Their numbers also include younger Yemenis, including graduates of al-Zindani’s Imam University outside Sana`a.69 As one alumnus explained, there has long been an intense theological and political debate within Imam University between quietists who seek to restore the caliphate through education and dialogue, and activists compelled to create it by force. Energized by the Arab Spring and radicalized by government crackdowns, students ascribing to the latter view have reportedly left the university for jihad in the south.71 Among them are tribesmen from al-Zindani’s village, al- Arhab, as well as individuals related to prominent Islamist leaders from cities such as Marib and Radda.
The fourth and most unpredictable element is comprised of foreign fighters. According to two independent eyewitness accounts, AQAP stationed between 500 and 600 militants in Jaar prior to its liberation by Yemeni Army forces. Of that number, approximately 10% (or only 50 to 60 men) were foreign nationals. A slightly higher ratio was witnessed in Zinjibar, where foreigners represented between 10 and 20 of the approximately 60 guerrilla fighters remaining in the city near the end of May 2012.74 In both instances, however, foreign nationals (including Saudis) appear to have represented less than a third of the AQAP or Ansar al-Shari`a forces operating in Abyan Province at any given time.
The foreign fighters’ origins are eclectic. Somalis are the largest contingent, reportedly representing at least half of the non-Yemeni jihadists observed by eyewitness sources.75 Saudis are second, comprising nearly a quarter of AQAP’s foreign contingent. The remaining cohort is a mélange. Some sources describe a contingent of Jordanian jihadists migrating from Iraq. Others observed Afghans and Pakistanis, a Nigerian, and a “red faced man” believed to be of Russian or European origin. Other militants from Western backgrounds reportedly included two Frenchmen of North African descent, and one English- speaking convert to Islam.
Much like the Saudi purists described above, these deterritorialized militants appear to be fighting for ethical rather than political ends. The Somali contingent is a case in point. Although some analysts posit a strategic alliance between AQAP and al-Shabab,79 local sources report that Somali fighters in Yemen have generally abandoned the local struggle in Somalia in favor of a more globalized, deterritorialized jihad. Stated differently, these jihadists see themselves as part of a global vanguard, rather than reinforcements from a sympathetic ally.
This orientation, however, makes them unsuitable for Ansar al-Shari`a front operations. Respected for their military experience, unit cohesion and ideological tenacity, AQAP reportedly uses its Somali fighters as shock troops, rather than as recruiters within Yemen’s tribal population.
The distinctions among factions reveal a degree of dynamism within the wider movement. Although AQAP reportedly imposes a strict hierarchy on its followers—particularly in the ideological and operational domains— its members view their struggle and its objectives in different terms. Saudi purists and foreign fighters likely favor high profile assassination and provocation operations intended for global audiences. They see local gains as a basis for waging global jihad. Yemeni pragmatists and indigenous Salafists, by comparison, emphasize the sort of attritional operations and territorial consolidation aimed at establishing a self-sustaining insurrection. Their goal is to reestablish the caliphate, village by village, district by district.
These strategies are not necessarily in conflict. To the contrary, provocative terror can serve the pragmatists’ insurgency, particularly insofar as it disrupts or discredits the Yemeni regime. Moreover, insofar as operations such as the al-Sabin Square bombing achieve both symbolic and attritional objectives, it signals deeper convergence between these two tendencies. The question now is which tendency will prevail, particularly following the Yemeni Army’s liberation of Jaar and Zinjibar on June 12, 2012.83 To the extent that the purists predominate, Yemen will likely witness urban violence directed at government officials, foreign embassies, and other symbols of the nexus between Yemen’s transitional government and the “infidel” West.
If pragmatism prevails, however, then the insurgency could shift from the southern coastal provinces to rural highlands in a bid to preserve itself—and its influence—for years to come.


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