Despite its claim of responsibility earlier today, there’s a lot that isn’t publicly known about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s connection to last week’s by Cherif and Said Kouachi in Paris.
Said previously traveled to Yemen, met with influential Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar Al Awlaki, befriended the man behind the failed “underwear bomb” attempt, and received training and perhaps some seed money for a future attack against the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
But that was several years ago, long enough for the Kouachi brothers to have formulated the operational details of the plot on their own or with the assistance of other, yet-unknown accomplices.
The optics of today’s announcement are still unmistakable. AQAP, which is part of a larger Al Qaeda network engaged in a struggle for jihadist hearts and minds with the upstart Islamic State, just claimed credit for the most galvanizing jihadist terror attack on a Western target in years.
The terrorism in Paris highlights that al Qaeda’s core didn’t fade into irrelevance after the US invasion of Afghanistan and deaths of its top figures. Instead, it shifted leadership, expertise, and operational capabilities to Yemen (and to some extent Syria).
The global jihadist organisation is now deeply entrenched in the troubled Arabian state.
Yemen’s government has disintegrated in the face of threats from the Shi’ite Houthi rebel movement and AQAP. AQAP has also quietly pursued a successful ground-level hearts-and-minds strategy in order to build enough local support to ensure the group’s long-term survival. And its top leaders have close ties to al Qaeda head Aymen al-Zawahiri, to the point where AQAP is more like the Western wing of Al Qaeda central than a true franchise.
“They have a robust internal safe haven and a dysfunctional government that the US has great difficulty partnering with, and the US’s strategy is not very sound for the problem,” Daniel Green, a defence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider. “They have everything they need.”
Al Qaeda’s “Global General Manager”
The Arabian Peninsula has always been at the core of Al Qaeda’s aims. Osama bin Laden was deeply incensed by the Saudi monarchy’s agreement to host American troops during the Gulf War and dreamed of overthrowing his home country’s royal family. There were a number of Yemenis at top levels in Al Qaeda’s hierarchy both before and after the 9/11 attacks — including Nasir Abdel Karim Al Wuhayshi, current head of AQAP.
Wuhayshi was bin Laden’s secretary and assistant until the fall of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001. As Eli Lake reported for the Daily Beast in August of 2013, Wuhayshi had been “picked to lead of one of the group’s four training camps in Tarnak Farms, where bin Laden himself often stayed.”
As head of AQAP, Wuhayshi endorsed Ayman al-Zawahiri as bin Laden’s successor. As Lake reported, the Egyptian ex-physician returned Wuhayshi’s loyalty by elevating him to Al Qaeda’s global general manager, “able to call on the resources of al Qaeda’s affiliates throughout the Muslim world, according to one US intelligence official.”
In his book The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, scholar Gregory D. Johsen recounts the organizational connections between Wuhayshi and representatives of Al Qaeda’s Saudi branch. Wuhayshi fled to Iran but was eventually deported to Yemen and imprisoned in 2003. He broke out in 2006, later teaming up with a number of ex-Guantanamo Bay detainees and other experienced al Qaeda hands to form AQAP in early 2009.
This organizational pedigree has allowed AQAP to function at a remarkably high level. It’s won the allegiance of tribal leaders in Yemen’s periphery by emphasising local concerns over the imposition of religious law. It’s assassinated dozens of figures in the Yemeni government and security apparatus, including the southern commander of Yemen’s army in June of 2011 — and perpetrated numerous suicide attacks against Houthi targets as well (the Houthis are Shiites; Al Qaeda is Sunni).
“The have a very high-quality leadership cadre” says Green, noting that the group’s bomb makers are particularly skilled.
Attacking External Targets
Most Al Qaeda offshoots are absorbed with local concerns — Somalia’s al Shabaab doesn’t seem to have an agenda beyond the Horn of Africa, for instance, while Al Qaeda in Iraq had little apparent ambition to strike at foreign targets before it morphed into ISIS. AQAP has always been different.
Publicly available documents recovered from Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan cautioned AQAP against focusing on internal state building in Yemen instead of striking at Al Qaeda’s enemies abroad.
“From Al Qaeda Central’s perspective, AQAP is sort of the special branch and the one most capable of mounting outside attacks,” Brookings Institution fellow Will McCants told Business Insider.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, agrees that the group is better suited towards outside attacks than other Al Qaeda affiliates.
“AQAP has had more external operations capabilities, and has had the most external operations capabilities of any AQ affiliate for some time,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “Part of it could be that AQAP has a green light to carry out attacks and other affiliates don’t.”
This doesn’t mean that AQAP’s claim of responsibility for the attack in Paris is airtight. But it could still draw attention to Al Qaeda central’s successful reconstitution of itself within Yemen’s political and social vacuum.
“It’s clear that a lot of core leadership has made it way to Yemen and is part of AQAP,” says Gartenstein-Ross.
And they’re still major players in the global jihadist scene, able to claim a concrete link to a major attack on Western soil.
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