Building on our Shabaab report, which commented on AQAP, our followers suggested that a deeper dive into the group would be useful. We therefore discuss AQ’s Yemen based affiliate, first established in 2009, with a focus on attacking government interests in Yemen/KSA to remove perceived western influence within the Arabian Peninsula. Given the political instability following the Arab spring and subsequent civil war, the group had a permissive environment to expand their operations, with a consistent tempo of attacks against government forces peaking in 2017. This began to change in Aug 22, when the UAE/KSA began a concerted push to undermine their southern-Yemen presence, a trend that has only accelerated throughout 2023. Working with their allied forces (such as the UAE backed STC) and as part of US drone programs (recent strikes have killed key media and explosive manufacture officials), AQAP’s leadership and military capability has been significantly degraded. This pressure has affected the group’s ability to operate, forcing it to shift onto domestic programs, such as weapons development and revenue raising. In the context of KSA/Houthi negotiations, and a possible trajectory of ‘relative’ stability for Yemen, space for an AQ affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula is shrinking.
To counter the military pressure on the group, Khalid Batarfi (the AQAP Emir) has been forced into investing into new capabilities, seeking to offset the limited forces available to him. Their new armed UAS reflects positively in glossy ‘Arrows of Truth’ propaganda outputs, but are having no significant impact on the battlefield. The capability is a 40mm grenade dropped from an unidentified drone (probably a modified commercial UAS); with only a 10m lethal radius, and the platform flying outside of small arms range (at least 400m), the margin for error in deployment is significant. This has forced the group to focus on soft targets, with the majority of footage showing the targeting of logistics vehicles in the operational rear areas. While this style of attrition is successful in other conflicts (such as the counter-Russia employment by Ukraine), a well-equipped, mobile and motivated ground force is always needed to fill the seams generated through indirect capabilities. The significant time, financial and cognitive resource being absorbed within the group on research, is limiting the ability for AQAP to operate with duality; AQAP activity (measured by ACLED) remains down significantly on historical averages.
Compounding military failures, is an even more significant financial deficit; in the last report we commented on the large amount of Shabaab money being used to offset AQAP. Tax revenues are challenging to raise in a failed state, especially where the territorial hold in southern-Yemen is contested, but more concerning is the mismanagement of finances in their reserve. An example of the includes the recent (Apr 23) release of UN workers, following a lengthy kidnap-for-ransom operation which initiated in Feb 22. While the group had requested a $3million ransom be paid by the UN (this would equate to roughly 35% of their annual operating costs), there are widespread indications that AQAP were deceived by a series of tribal facilitators, who handed the individuals to the UAE (through an Omani mediator) for their own financial benefit. In order to placate a large number of fighters disenfranchised with the deception, the group was forced to release ‘face-saving’ information online indicating the receipt of funds, using unofficial channels rather than an official statement (such as the appeals shared showing proof-of-life for the hostages initially). It is therefore very unlikely that AQAP received any money, and based on reactions online, clear that fighters are not accepting of their claims. These are individuals who can, first hand, see the extent of financial mismanagement afflicting the group; even the hostages reported a significant shortage of supplies, such as finance and money. Without a substantial correction, AQAP’s reserves are likely to continue to be inhibited, forcing a continued reliance on Shabaab for income.
The decisive future for Yemen remains the ongoing Houthi/KSA peace talks, which sets a framework for a possible end to the fighting. Following the Apr 22 ceasefire (which has been extended), and a series of high-profile engagements with military/political officials (including Khaled bin Salman). Al-Malahim was quick to denounce the peace talks, with a statement released in Apr 23 that reaffirmed this position. They are the only group who benefit from an unstable Yemen, and there have even been indications that there have been some tactical alignments with the Houthis to achieve this; the latter hope to bolster their negotiating position by increasing their perceived fighting strength. This has forced AQAP to become locked into a broader surface of conflict, including some evidence (albeit through HTS statements) that AQAP fighters had been deployed into Syria in support of HaD in Sep. Becoming locked into a broader state-backed, non-ideological fight, is damaging for the group’s ‘rank-and-file’ and overseas supporter base, and opens wider surfaces/mandates for US disruptive action. In the context of a conflict between Israel/Gaza, the Iranian proxy draw is likely to become increasingly demanding.
So the group remains challenged. Much like Shabaab, they are seeking military relevance under the absence of a formally recognized, ideologically absent, global AQ Emir. AQAP is a tertiary player in Yemen, struggling to contest military pressure and unable to pay its fighters; their weakening hand is being exploited by the wider ecosystem. While there will always be a radical core in Batarfi and his deputies, they remain dislocated from the mass of the group, and fractions in the fighting force (most likely along tribal lines) remain the most plausible outcome through to 2024. In a failed state, senior leadership must recognize that fighters need their ideological motivation to intersect with basic human needs (salary, familial security and collective identity). As both become corrupted, the offer becomes significantly less appealing.