Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been battering al-Qaeda terrorists wherever they have found them. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, everywhere. What used to be safe havens have now become graveyards. But other bastions have emerged in the meanwhile. Somalia and Yemen are two of them.
Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate was bolstered by its merger in 2009 with the Saudi Arabian al-Qaeda affiliate forming al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This merger poses a significant destabilization threat throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
Though Yemen still maintains vestiges of its tribal history, they are less pronounced than in Somalia. This allows al-Qaeda to utilize Yemen as an ideological base.
Al-Qaeda’s Saudi Arabian affiliate has significant media outlets from which it spreads ideological propaganda. The merger allowed the two affiliates to pool resources and reach a broader audience of potential recruits. The recent elimination of Qasim al-Rimi, the leader of AQAP, may end up slowing the growth of the group. Al-Rimi had committed unconscionable violent acts against civilians in Yemen and sought to conduct and inspire numerous attacks against the United States and its forces. President Trump believes that the elimination of al-Rimi will bring us closer to removing the threats this group poses to our national security.
AQAP’s media output shows how al-Qaeda tries to make different ideas, beliefs, myths, and traditions work to radicalize and mobilize the population. These media outlets not only identify grievances and assign blame; they also outline actions necessary to correct the problems. By doing so, AQAP has managed to rise above many of the previous tribal and economic divisions and unite a growing number of Yemenis to its cause.
A shared grievance narrative has led to claims by Yemeni analysts that while al-Qaeda may number in the hundreds, there are tens of thousands of Yemenis who share its grievances. With potentially thousands of recruits, AQAP poses a severe threat to international security despite the death of al-Rimi. Furthermore, Yemen’s weakened state is more useful to the group’s purposes than a completely collapsed state, such as in Somalia, would be. AQAP walks a tight wire in inciting grievances and mobilizing citizens, yet not being the catalyst behind total civil collapse.
Within this balancing act lie the success and failure of AQAP’s objectives. The weakened Yemeni government is an invitation for al-Qaeda, whereas the growth of the government’s strength and authority among the population would prove inhospitable.
Yemen is struggling to make strides in state-building. As recently as 50 years ago, the Yemeni imam presided over a country with no local currency, no sewage system, and only three hospitals. The country has experienced growth. However, corruption within the government, a lack of particular political direction, and old tribal divisions still threaten to unravel any progress. The Yemeni government is not the only one at stake; AQAP has spoken openly about its desire to depose the Saudi Arabian regime.
AQAP maintains al-Qaeda’s original vision of ridding the Arabian Peninsula of all non-Muslims, establishing a local emirate, and liberating Palestine en route to the creation of a global caliphate. The potential fundraising capabilities within the Somali piracy network and Yemen’s ideological base and operating space provide al-Qaeda with useful resources to wage war against the U.S. and western interests. However, U.S. government intervention often plays into al-Qaeda’s narrative against the occupation. One of the rallying cries and most potent radicalizing ideals is the ousting of foreign powers from Muslim lands. Al-Qaeda has become adept at inflaming passions and perceived injustices at the hands of western occupiers. Thus, Western support to local government inconspicuously requires finesse and the judicious application of aid and government funding.
Indiscriminate financial aid only adds to the problem of corruption and creates a cycle whereby violence and warfare pay off for a small percentage of the population. Military support, such as counter-terrorism training by U.S. SOF, is useful but should be contingent on demonstrable efforts by the government to battle corruption and homegrown terrorism. Otherwise, we risk arming and training our future adversaries.
The threat posed by al-Qaeda will be an ongoing struggle to identify and respond in countries where conditions encourage exploitation. The organization is adept at gaining footholds where weakened governments are unable to support lawful order. Explosive population growth will intensify the competition for scarce resources, and globalization provides al-Qaeda with ample population grievances that it can exploit to ensure the regeneration of its numbers.
Though it may be impossible to stamp out, altogether, the threat that al-Qaeda poses, the global community can greatly hinder al-Qaeda’s effectiveness. Currently, state decline in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, specifically in Somalia and Yemen, offer the most significant opportunity for al-Qaeda’s continued operation. As such counter-terrorism efforts should be a top security priority in these countries.