Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

Overall Threat Assessment

There is lack of consensus amongst experts over the level or magnitude of threat posed buy the al Qaeda organization that has a strong ground in the Arabian Peninsula. However it is clear that al Qaeda’s aim is to carry out terror activities against the United States and its western allies as well as against the perceived interests of the United States. It is assumed that, based on the capabilities of the organization, that al Qaeda has lost ground in terms of power and capabilities since the attacks of September 2001[1]. The threat has been replaced over the years by the presence of loosely organized terror cells that subscribe to the ideologies of al-Qaida. Based on such beliefs, it is assumed that Al Qaida lacks the manpower or general capabilities of planning significant events similar to those of September 2011 as a result of lack of cohesiveness amongst the loosely fitted entities that subscribe to al Qaida.

However, it is important to note that al Qaida still remains a significant threat to the United States given that its leadership is assumed to be in constant contact with the loosely connected and affiliated terror cells. Thus Al Qaida as an organization still remains a significant threat given that its structure possesses the capabilities necessary for carrying large terror attacks on western nations and their respective interests.


The founder of this terror organization, Osama bin laden was born on July 1957 from a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia and of Yemeni origin. A majority of people in Saudi Arabia are Sunni Muslims and Osama bin laden is thought to have taken up religious Islamism views while he was studying at the King Abdul Aziz University located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia[2]. He was thereby influenced by the Muslim brotherhood during his interactions with individuals such as Muhammad Qutb and his lecturer Dr. Abdullah al-Azzam.  Dr. Abdullah al-Azzam has been termed as the primary architect of jihad that was aimed at retaliation and protesting against the invasion of the Arab countries by the Soviet Union. Subsequently, Osama bin laden travelled to Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 to join Azzam. It is assumed that he was able to use his personal funds for establishing himself as a donor to the Afghan mujahedeen as a well as a recruiter of Islamic and Arab volunteers to fight the soviet forces.

In the year 1984 Azzam and bin laden were able to establish offices in Arab countries Europe and the United States guised as a means of fund raising and recruiting volunteers and fighters for the jihad against the occupation of Muslim countries by non-Muslims. This network was known as the Maktab al- Khidamat (Services Office) and came to be the forerunning entity towards the formation of al Qaeda. The United States at the time saw it fit for the agency to recruit volunteering fighters in the war against the soviets. Critics claim that the United States was also involved in direct financial and military aid in providing support to the mujahedeen fighters against the soviets. It is noted that the mujahedeen fighters were effective in persuading the Soviet Union to pull out of Afghanistan.

In the year 1988, bin Laden, Azzam and the entire network contemplated on avenues to utilize the force. It is noted that the term Al Qaida was developed in reference to the force which could be used as a rapid reaction force against any perceived threats against the Muslims around the world. However, Bin Laden differed with Azzam’s perspective and instead wanted the force to be utilized to topple the pro-western Arab leadership, in this case Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Essentially, the entity denounces and strongly opposes the Al Saud Monarchy given the latter’s gradual engagement with western powers[3].

The Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in early 2009, which is a merger between the al Qaeda factions in Yemen and Saud Arabia. The Saudi faction is noted to have been completely suppressed by the Saudi government which necessitated the fleeing of a majority of its members and leadership to Yemen to continue its terror operations. In the early 1990s the organization was able to exploit the political and economic challenges that were inherent in the Arab counties and the growing levels of discontent amongst the public. However in the early 2000s the entity faced growing levels of counterterrorism, activities initiated by governments.

Al Qaida in Yemen has been focused on capitalizing on the extensive public dissatisfaction which has been understood to be the source of its success in this Arab country. After the year 2003, the al Qaeda faction in Yemen was crippled by the extensive counterterrorism activities by the United States and the Yemeni government. However, the united state’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Yemeni government was faced with a growing challenge in containing the Shia uprising. This was an effective opportunity for the al Qaida faction to regroup which was marked with the 2006 Sana’a jailbreak that saw the escape of more than 23 high level al Qaida operatives. The year 2009 saw the merge between the two entities with AQAP becoming the most effective terror entity that saw the bombing of passenger planes in 2009 and cargo planes in 2010.

Membership and Leadership

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been founded on the exploitation of grievances of the public in terms of oppressive regimes, discrimination, and poverty. The organization has capitalized on the gradual decline of democracy and move to anarchy in Yemen.  The presence of widespread corruption, high levels of poverty, social discrimination resulting in fragmentation have all contributed towards the growth of this terror organization in Yemen[4]. The number of members based on estimates has ranged from between 400-600 since the organization relocated in Yemen to capitalize on weak governance and the social discontent amongst the citizens in the country.

Organizational Structure

Name Position Status
Nasir al-Wuhayshi Emir Founder and Emir of AQAP
Said Ali al-Shihri Deputy Emir High ranking Saudi official Killed in 2013
Qasim al-Raymi Military Commander Senior commander responsible for current recruitments
Ibrahim al-Rubaysh Mufti Killed in drone strike in 2015
Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi Deputy general manager Claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo shooting for AQAP
Anwar al-Awlaki Chief External Operations Killed in a drone strike in the year 2011
Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari Senior Sharia Official Killed in a drone strike in 2015
Ibrahim al-Banna Chief Security Wanted list on united states’ Reward for Justice List.
Othman al-Ghamdi Operational Commander Former Guantanamo detainee
Ibrahim al-Asiri Expert in explosives Unknown

Current Goals/ Motivation

Its primary goals can be termed as nationalist as well as having a global jihad agenda. In a 19minute long video titled “We Start from Here and We Will Meet at al-Aqsa,” released by the group details the ideologies and aims of the group. The primary goal is understood to be the expulsion of foreigners from the Arabian Peninsula and spreading jihad to Israel with an aim of liberation of the various holy Muslim sites and Muslim brothers in Gaza. The AQAP also engaged in condemnation of the Arab leadership for imposing blockades on Palestine as well as promises of saving the jihadists who are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda and its affiliate the AQAP are driven by the need to establish an Islamic caliphate through the breakdown of all existing Islamic states. The existing ideology is that “Al Qaeda will mobilize four armies that will march from the periphery of the Muslim world to the heart of Palestine: one army from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and the last from the Levant”. Thus AQAP is understood to be the army that will be sent from Yemen. As noted by Osama bin laden, the primary enemy is the United States whereas Saudi Arabia and its neighbor Palestine have been occupied by the crusader Zionists[5]. AQAP also assumes a sectarian approach in relation to the existing differences between the Sunni and Shia Muslims.

AQAP has moved towards marginalization of the Shiites and more so the Houthis from northern Yemen. The group has termed the Houthis as fighting towards imposition of religious laws in Yemen which is believed to be an Iranian backed strategy. Secondly, Deputy Commander at AQAP Said Shihri termed the Shiites as polytheists which makes them automatic enemies of Islam. This Yemeni faction has been effective in instilling fear over its intention and ability to organize and carry out terror attacks in different parts of the world.

Tactics and Capabilities

On may 16th 2010, AQAP announced its support for Anwar al-Awlaki coupled by threats on the united states if the said party was harmed by the Americans. This was later followed by an attempted attack by placement of parcel bombs in a number of cargo planes and subsequently addressed to an American address. This planned attack was foiled in time by the authorities. However it was effective in illustrating the intentions and power of this organization.

Funding connections

AQAP uses funding models that are adopted from al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan. United states officials note that AQAP is involved in drug trade, bank robberies and fraudulent charity agencies as a means of sourcing funding for its operations. In addition, other activities include kidnappings for ransom purposes which have been termed as a highly effective strategy for making money. In addition reports from the united states in the year 2009 noted of the presence of Saudi donors who were a significant source of money for the terror organization as well as other Sunni terror groups.


Yemen has been faced with numerous political and economic problems, which have been critical towards shaping up the imminent threat posed by the terror group AQAP. Yemen is termed as one of the poorest states within the Arab peninsula with a poverty level of 54.5% as at the year 2012 as per World Bank estimates. It is noted than more than half of the population in Yemen is in dire need of food aid. The united nations noted in the year 2013 that the poverty levels were significantly high as a result of the various security, economic and social constraints in the country[6]. It is important to note that rapid growth of the Yemeni population has increased the pressure exerted on the existing and meager resources and public utilities coupled by rampant unemployment have provided a breeding ground for militant activity. The Arab spring of 2011 has been termed as a catalyst for the subsequent unrest in Yemen.

The presence of a security vacuum in the south of the country provided the Islamist militias with a platform for new territory in the southern province of Abyan. Ansar al-Sharia, an affiliated terror group, is noted to have restored a variety of social services, repaired the dilapidated infrastructure, and brought about Sharia courts. The country has become disintegrated since the ouster of president Hadi and the formation of a competing governing faction in Aden. The country is divided between Houthis, the former regime, secession movements in the south and AQAP with all being incapable of controlling the country.


Countering the Threat

Countries such as the United States have relied on direct action as a means of countering the threat posed by AQAP. Furthermore, strengthening the government by providing direct aid to the country is critical towards weakening its activities and presumed growth. Launching of strikes against the group has been termed as critical in elimination of leadership and resources held by the group[7]. However, it is important to note that such avenues are usually marked by the loss of civilian lives.

The presence of a strong Yemeni government would be critical in ensuring that the country achieves the desired level of peace and stability. It is important to note that this can only be achieved by provision of support and urging cooperation between the various political and religious factions in the country. Furthermore, it is also critical to ensure destabilization and elimination of all financial sources that AQAP utilizes to source for funding for its activities. This is a critical step in ensuring that stability is achieved and the group is eliminated.

Furthermore, a coordinated approach should be urged between all Arab states in order to quell the Islamism activities raging in the Arabian peninsula. This is critical in ensuring that the coordinated terror activities between all al Qaeda affiliates are eliminated and stability is achieved. This also demands the need for social education to the communities to highlight to them of the risks and consequences of engagement and interactions with the aforementioned terror groups and their radical affiliates.





















Atwan, Abdel Bari. After Bin Laden: Al Qaeda, the Next Generation. New York : The New Press, 2012.

Benton, Curtis, and Charles G. Attwater. Yemen and the Challenge of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. New York : Nova Science Publishers, 2013.

Boucek, Christopher, and Marina Ottaway. Yemen on the Brink. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010.

Day, Stephen W. Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Difo, Germain. Yemen and U.S. Security Assessing and Managing the Challenge of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Washington, D.C.: American Security Project, 2010.

Harris, Alistair. Exploiting Grievances Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010.

Mantel, Barbara. Assessing the Threat from Al Qaeda: Is the Militant Islamist Group Still a Danger to the West? Washington, DC : New America Foundation, 2014.

Hedberg, Nicholas J. The Exploitation of a Weak State Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School, 2010.

Lacey, Robert, Stephen Hoye, and Robert Lacey. Inside the Kingdom Kings, Clerics, Modernist, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. [Old Saybrook, CT]: Tantor Audio, 2009.

Loidolt, Bryce. 2011. “Managing the Global and Local: The Dual Agendas of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. 34, no. 2: 102-123.

Lindo, Samuel, Michael Schoder, and Tyler Jones. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2011.

Publishing, Britannica Educational, and Nicholas Croche. Anarchism, Revolution, and Terrorism. Chicago: Britannica Educational Publishing, 2015.

Shemella, Paul. Fighting Back: What Governments Can Do About Terrorism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Terrill, W. Andrew. The Struggle for Yemen and the Challenge of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Carlisle, PA : Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College, 2013.

United States. Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) : Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence of the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, March 2, 2011. Washington: U.S. G.P.O.



[1] Germain Difo. Yemen and U.S. Security Assessing and Managing the Challenge of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (Washington, D.C.: American Security Project, 2010) 23.


[2] Abdel Bari Atwan. After Bin Laden: Al Qaeda, the Next Generation (New York: The New Press, 2012) 36.


[3] W. Andrew Terrill. The Struggle for Yemen and the Challenge of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (Carlisle, PA : Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College, 2013) 46.


[4] Nicholas J. Hedberg. The Exploitation of a Weak State Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. (Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School, 2010) 46.


[5] Stephen W. Day. Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 39.


[6] Bryce Loidolt.. “Managing the Global and Local: The Dual Agendas of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. 34, no. 2: 102-123 )112

[7] Paul Shemella. Fighting Back: What Governments Can Do About Terrorism (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011) 39.


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