In Yemen, at the end of last month, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was cleared from al-Mukalla, their major urban stronghold. This ends a year of occupation and brings to a close what is effectively the third emirate or statelet AQAP has either set up or attempted to set up in Yemen since 2011. These projects offer some insights into al-Qaeda’s methodology in getting to an Islamic state, including its rebranding in opposition to the Islamic State (IS).
Usama bin Ladin’s ancestral homeland is in Hadramut in southern Yemen and he had tried to foment Islamist revolution there since 1989-90. Al-Qaeda’s first terrorist attack against America took place in Yemen on 29 December 1992, with the bombings in Aden of the Gold Mohur Hotel and the Aden Mövenpick Hotel targeting American Marines—who were on their way to Somalia to help alleviate the suffering of a (Muslim) population afflicted by famine and war. Much to Bin Ladin’s disappointment, the Yemeni population bought into Yemeni unification and the tribal and patronage networks of the new system. With the hopes of an Islamist statelet in Yemen dashed, al-Qaeda nonetheless maintained Yemen connections as a throughway and fundraiser.
In December 2007, Bin Ladin had publicly defended the claims of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the forerunner of IS, that they had actually established a state, and said that—though ISI lacked some capacity—their enterprise was nonetheless legitimate because if people were waiting for an Islamic state to emerge ex nihilo with “full political capability” then “Islam would never achieve a state.” The U.S. might be able to topple this “state”—which controlled even less territory than its precursor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—but that was no excuse for withholding allegiance, said Bin Ladin.
By 2010, al-Qaeda’s leader had evolved in his thinking towards that of Mustafa Nasar, better-known as Abu Musab al-Suri, probably al-Qaeda’s greatest strategist, which emphasized preparing the ground for an Islamic state from the bottom-up, both by ideologically popularizing the concept and having al-Qaeda’s jihadists physically embed in populations and legitimate themselves by example.
In the late summer of 2010, Bin Ladin had written to his chief of staff, Jamal al-Misrati (“Atiya”), telling him to direct the affiliate leaders, specifically AQAP’s now-deceased leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi, to “avoid attacking the army and the police force” in Yemen because “planning for the establishment of the state begins with exhausting the main influential power,” i.e. the United States, which had dismantled the Taliban theocracy and Saddam Hussein’s regime. “We have to continue with exhausting and depleting them till they become so weak that they can’t overthrow any state that we establish,” Bin Ladin concluded. “That will be the time to commence with forming the Islamic state.”
This echoed directly Nasar, who had written in his 2004 manifesto, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, that “America’s role as a leading force … means we must give the confrontation with America priority over any other entity.” Jihadists must bring about America’s “destruction” before they can move on to “the next phase” of building the Islamic emirates that will eventually merge into a restored caliphate, Nasar wrote.
Bin Ladin had begun drafting a letter directly to al-Wuhayshi around May 2010 and had redrafted it in the late summer of 2010. In the earlier letter, Bin Ladin laid out al-Qaeda’s strategic thinking this way:
The enemy can also be described as a wicked tree. … The trunk of the tree represents America. The branches of the tree represent countries, like NATO members, and countries in the Arab World. We, on the other hand, represent a person who wants to cut down that tree. Our abilities and resources, however, are limited … Assume that we have cut [into] the trunk of that tree. We, then, see an opportunity to use our saw to cut into one of the branches. Say a branch that represents the United Kingdom. We should ignore that opportunity, and go back to sawing the trunk of the tree. If we are to allow ourselves to be distracted by sawing this or that branch, we could never finish the job at hand. We will also lose momentum and, most importantly, waste our jihad efforts. … God willing, once the tree is down, its branches will die thereof.
Bin Ladin was adamant that the mujahideen regard it as their “fundamental mission … to attack Americans and their interests,” and saw the building of popular support as crucial to this aim. “A resistance movement cannot last without the support of the public, just like a fish cannot live without water,” Bin Ladin wrote, sounding more like Mao Zedong than a jihadi. Bin Ladin instanced Iraq as a place where the mujahideen had misjudged this, particularly by the operations attacking tribesmen who were signing up with the new government. This was a mistake, said Bin Ladin, because “as you know, a killing of a tribesman is taken very seriously by any tribe and it often becomes a leading cause for all sorts of vengeful wars.” So it proved with the Anbar Awakening. What was needed, Bin Ladin advised, was for “the Muslim people [to] be united first before the preparation for building a Muslim state begins,” and that meant al-Qaeda “must gain the support of the tribes who enjoy strength and influence before building our Muslim state.”
By the redraft, Bin Ladin was terser: “Avoid killing anyone from the tribes,” and “Do not target military and police officers in their centres unless you receive an order from us.” Bin Ladin made reference to “operations in Marib and Ataq,” which had occurred in June and July 2010, and said: “I hope these operations were important for the mujahideen’s self-defence only.” Bin Ladin went on: “Even though these policies are clear in the minds of our leader brothers, it is very important to remind all of our brothers”. In other words, Bin Ladin was blaming AQAP’s violations of his policy on youthful enthusiasts in the ranks. Bin Ladin explicitly says AQAP should reach a “practical truce” with the Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, even if this cannot be done de jure, because even with Saleh cracking down the government was so weak that al-Qaeda and its allies “were able to take advantage” to both bivouac in and transit across Yemeni territory. “[I]t is not in our interest to rush in bringing down the [Saleh] regime,” Bin Ladin wrote.
Within six months, however, Bin Ladin’s advice and AQAP’s ability to heed it had been overtaken by events. Bin Ladin was taken as off-guard by the “Arab spring” as everybody else, and when the protest movement came to Yemen, AQAP could not sit on the sidelines. “Taking advantage of the political crisis, AQAP seized parts of Abyan Province in the South, including one of its major towns, Ja’ar,” in March 2011, writes William McCants in his book, The ISIS Apocalypse. With ISI’s example in mind—the group by this time a shadow of itself, nearly destroyed physically and politically discredited for bringing bloodshed and ruin to Muslims on such an extreme scale that they sided with the “Crusaders” against ISI—AQAP avoided declaring a state but declared a series of emirates, McCants writes. Al-Qaeda’s name had been battered by the disaster in Iraq—despite ISI (publicly) breaking the al-Qaeda link when it declared its state in 2006, everyone still referred to ISI as AQI. So AQAP used a front name, Ansar al-Shari’a. But the rebranding did no good: AQAP made all the same mistakes: lording it over the tribes and imposing its brutal version of “justice”. By June 2012, tribes had broken with AQAP, which had been expelled from Ja’ar, and soon a full-fledged revolt had broken out, leading al-Qaeda to respond as it always had: with suicide bombings against crowded areas. Further isolation followed for AQAP and—despite a scorched earth effort—their statelet was unravelled by the end of the summer in 2012.
According to the Yemeni government, AQAP tried to resurrect its statelet in 2013. On 24 May that year, AQAP seized villages around al-Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and the capital of the restive Hadramut Province. This was an attempt to “proclaim an Islamic emirate in the Ghayl Bawazir area,” according to Yemen’s Interior Ministry. By the summer of 2013, the Yemeni government was able to defend al-Mukalla and when an attempt was made by AQAP to seize bases and villages in the area in September 2013, they were recaptured within hours.
Picking through the wreckage after al-Qaeda’s attempts at state-management had ended in catastrophe in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Mali, the change of direction Bin Ladin had been advocating in his final days now took hold among his subordinates. Al-Wuhayshi, al-Qaeda’s general manager as well as AQAP’s leader, understood that the project in Yemen had gone wrong. On 21 May 2012, weeks before AQAP was ejected from Ja’ar and its statelet disbanded, al-Wuhayshi wrote to Abdelmalik Droukdel (Abu Musab Abdul Wadud), the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had invaded northern Mali in January 2012 and received an enormous boost after the military overthrew the government in March, leaving Bamako a shambles as the jihadists dug in. Still, al-Wuhayshi sensed danger, warning AQIM of the need to “keep the [media] message under control,” and cautioning that AQAP had learned lessons from its mistakes that had now united tribes, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafists against them:
Your enemies want to see you fail and they are throwing obstacles in your path to prove to people that the mujahideen are people that are only good for fighting and war, and have nothing to do with running countries … [The people] are being governed by rulers who seek to distance them from religion. … You have to be kind to them and make room for compassion and for leniency. Try to win them over through the conveniences of life and by taking care of their daily needs like food, electricity and water. Providing these necessities will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours. … You have to take a gradual approach with them when it comes to their religious practices. You can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray.
This message was echoed when Droukdel himself wrote to his own AQIM commanders, in a letter found after AQIM—operating through the front group Ansar Dine—had been expelled from northern Mali in January 2013. Mali was an “environment ignorant of religion,” Droukdel wrote. Likening the Malian populace to an infant, Droukdel added:
The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until it stands. … One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied shari’a. … Our previous experience proved that applying shari’a this way … will lead to people rejecting the religion and engender hatred towards the mujahideen.
The themes of al-Qaeda’s new model were sharpening into view: Muslim societies had been stripped of real religious understanding (the notion of Sayyid Qutb that this was a new age of jahiliya, ignorance and paganism) and therefore had to be led gradually back into it; applying the full shari’a immediately would lead to a rejection of the jihadists and their ideas, not least because so many enemies were waiting for the jihadists to falter in order to take advantage and extinguish the true Islam; and the key to success was to make the population and al-Qaeda co-dependent—al-Qaeda would solve the population’s most pressing needs (whether that was fighting the government or social services) so that population felt its interests were coterminous with al-Qaeda’s and would protect the group, providing a bodyguard and durable roots for al-Qaeda’s global agenda.
These lessons had been assimilated when AQAP overran al-Mukalla on 3 April 2015, capturing large amounts of American-supplied equipment, the day after AQAP had systematically seized key facilities, including Hadramut Province’s security headquarters, the local police station, provincial administrative offices, a branch of the central bank, and the Central Prison, breaking free more than three-hundred people, including Khaled al-Batarfi, an AQAP military operations chief for Abyan and Baydah Provinces when he was captured in March 2011. This time, AQAP would “pose as a local protector-savior rather than an overlord in Mukalla,” as Yemen researcher Elisabeth Kendall noted. AQAP’s ideology was not widely shared in the areas it captured, but the creation of a pseudo-state where “even its detractors grudgingly acknowledged that AQAP was approachable, had some sense of justice and got things done,” meant AQAP “succeed in building tolerance for [its presence], if not outright support,” Kendall adds.
In November 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council had put in place a transition process that removed Saleh in early 2012 and paved the way for the formation of a new government. That process was disrupted in September 2014 when the Houthis, a Zaydi Shi’a insurgent group supported by Iran, overran the capital, Sanaa, and continued after the coup to try to conquer areas of the country. AQAP’s capture of al-Mukalla came just over a week after a Saudi-led coalition launched Operation DECISIVE STORM on 25 March 2015, which was designed to push back the Houthis and restore the political process. With other priorities, the Saudi-led forces had, until April 2016, essentially ignored AQAP and AQAP had kept very quiet about its holdings, not claiming any kind of state or emirate, and worked to embed itself within the wider insurgent movement in Yemen. AQAP is not as powerful as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, the self-conscious culmination of al-Qaeda’s refinement to its model of durable governance, but AQAP has made itself virtually indistinguishable from large sections of the Yemeni insurgency.
Moreover, when AQAP was removed from al-Mukalla on 24 April 2016, it is more precise to say it removed itself. There was a major ground operation of more than 2,000 foreign troops and local forces led by the United Arab Emirates into al-Mukalla, but while the Coalition claimed that 800 AQAP jihadists had been killed, the real figure is probably closer to sixty. AQAP itself said that it had withdrawn—ostensibly to protect civilians—rather than having been routed. In short, after a year of controlling the city, embedding itself into social networks, proselytizing, collecting taxes, looting arms munitions and banks, AQAP pulled out of al-Mukalla and lived to fight another day. Thus, the suggestion this is as big a victory as if IS had been driven from Mosul or Raqqa is at best misleading.
Part of al-Qaeda’s refined model is to use IS as a foil, not only among local populations and within the Jihadi-Salafi community, but among regional governments. Unlike IS, which seeks to destroy the entire Arab state system now and install itself as ruler, al-Qaeda is prepared, as part of its long-term strategy, to work in the short-term within that system for influence, to present itself as a useful tool for Sunni Arab governments resisting Iranian encroachments. Yemen is the best example of this where AQAP was for a time tacitly allowed to make gains alongside the Gulf states’ reversal of Iranian influence, and it has also been seen in Syria where the Saudis, devoid of options, lifted restrictions on Turkey and Qatar supplying an insurgent coalition, Jaysh al-Fatah, which includes al-Nusra as a leading component.
Jaysh al-Fatah has also shown the extent of the evolution of al-Qaeda’s method. Al-Nusra’s credibility is on the rise because of its ability to inflict battlefield losses on the Assad regime in southern Aleppo and because al-Nusra was effectively correct in December when it objected to the Geneva III peace process as a trap for the opposition, designed to corral them into accepting Bashar al-Assad staying rather than a means of transitioning him out. Instead of claiming this gives al-Nusra a right to rule, however, Ayman al-Zawahiri has thrown the ball into the court of the other Islamists regarding their long-standing demand that al-Nusra breaks its links with al-Qaeda. If a “rightly guided” (by al-Qaeda’s definition, obviously) Islamic government is set up in a part of Syria, al-Nusra will become its servants and its allegiance to al-Qaeda will be dissolved, al-Zawahiri says. This is a sleight of hand, of course—al-Qaeda is giving up the name for the sake of the thing (an Islamic state or emirate)—but it might yet be effective.
The DECISIVE STORM operation now seems to have moved against al-Qaeda, as well as Iran’s instruments in Yemen, but how sustained that effort will be—and how successful, given how powerful AQAP was allowed to become—remains to be seen. In Syria, the obsession with IS has crowded out most of the space for thinking about dealing with Jihadi-Salafism, and what bandwidth has gone to considering the al-Qaeda problem seems to have concluded that targeted elimination of leaders and pressuring the opposition—including in ways that come very close to leveraging Russian threats—can uproot al-Qaeda from revolutionary dynamics in Syria. This has not worked so far: the Russian intervention, for example, prioritized insurgent unity over religio-political moderation. A dual strategy of militarily empowering the opposition to a point where none of its members are dependent on al-Qaeda and politically changing the environment, since it is very unlikely that the armed opposition will open a new front against al-Qaeda while the Assad regime is still able to threaten them and Syria’s civilian population, might have more success in neutralizing al-Qaeda in Syria. Such a policy does not seem to be on the horizon, however, and as of this moment al-Qaeda is better-positioned than it ever has been and the trend-lines are headed up.