Defense Media Network

Is Al Qaeda in Yemen Becoming More Dangerous?

Short answer: nope

Afraid to go outside because U.S. drones, run by the CIA, are constantly seeking targets in Yemen. Since the message was intercepted, U.S. drone strikes have increased dramatically. The official line from Washington is that Predator UAV strikes have killed 22 people in Yemen since the start of the year, but some estimates suggest drone strikes killed 37 people in Yemen during the first two weeks in August. Overall, air and drone strikes have taken out between 632 and 1,231 people in Yemen since December 2009.

Meanwhile, with the recent disclosures about the vast use of the NSA’s digital intelligence gathering operations – and the apparent ability of U.S. intelligence to read messages on al Qaeda’s not-so-secret-after-all forums – if Zawahiri or Wuhayshi use the Internet or phone, they run a real risk of drawing a Predator’s missile to their exact location. This does not preclude AQAP or another al Qaeda affiliate from coordinating and launching an attack, but it certainly frustrates the process.

After the Arab Spring and the ouster of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP militants seized control of two towns in Abyan Province, east of Aden. The group also increased recruitment efforts. These gains, however, were short lived. A recent push by the Yemeni military (with the help of U.S. drones) has managed to take back control, and of late, AQAP has achieved little else.

  • On August 4, dozens of al Qaeda militants disguised in army uniforms assembled in a grandiose attempt to take control of the al-Dabbah oil export terminal in Hadramout, the Balhaf liquid natural gas (LNG) export terminal and the city of Mukalla. One of the plot’s goals was to kill or capture foreign workers at the facilities. The army completely disrupted the attack.
  • On August 11, militants killed four Yemeni soldiers who were sleeping at a checkpoint leading to the Balhaf LNG facility, likely in retribution for the failed attack a week earlier. The checkpoint was one of several leading to the facility, which is heavily guarded. There was little chance a small group of militants could have infiltrated or disrupted the facility itself. They fled after killing the guards.
  • On August 14, about 70 militants (linked with al Qaeda) swarmed into Hawtah, a city in the south, attempting to take control of the city’s western neighborhoods. The militants were met with military tanks, which surrounded the neighborhood where the militants had taken cover and put an end to the attack.
  • On August 21, militants (described by Saba, Yemen’s state news agency, as “terrorist elements”) shot and killed Col. Ali Hadi, the Aden intelligence chief, also killing his son in the attack. The assassination may have some short-term impact on counterterrorism work in Yemen, but intelligence gathering in the country’s south will undoubtedly continue unabated. These kinds of hit-and-run attacks are the last option of a group with limited capabilities.

Though lacking any victories on which to champion their dwindling cause, AQAP leaders took to the Internet. Wuhayshi said in a video (ostensibly directed at al Qaeda followers though also created as a piece of propaganda) that his group was poised to break followers out of prison. He said: “The imprisonment will not last and the chains will be broken…Your brothers are about to bring down the walls and thrones of evil … and victory is within reach.”

Sure it is.

Had the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi not occurred, would the unprecedented embassy closings have taken place? What is more, if the embassies had not been closed, would there have been a resurgent concern for AQAP’s ability to launch attacks?

That rhetoric rings hollow in the aftermath of a series of total operational failures. Soon after Wuhayshi’s video, American al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn released his own video, calling for attacks on U.S. diplomats. He also championed the group that attacked the Libyan embassy, killing Ambassador Stevens. In both cases, AQAP is capitalizing on the international attention received through the embassy closings, but their videos do not mean they have the capacity to achieve their goals.


Not Your Father’s Al Qaeda

Putting the puzzle pieces together, there are a few conclusions that can be drawn about AQAP. First, the intercepted message with Zawahiri was likely not an empty threat. The series of attempted attacks in Yemen, particularly on August 4, must have been planned in advance, and Zawahiri’s message could have been the go-ahead to proceed. Whether the plans included an attack on a U.S. embassy remains unclear.

Adam Gadahn

Adam Gadahn, who also called for attacks on U.S. diplomats. FBI photo

Second, following the series of failures and increased drone attacks, AQAP again found itself against the ropes with nothing gained and not many options to continue efforts on a large scale. As result, it released two videos in an attempt to herald its goals while masking its inability to achieve them. Gadahn’s message calling for like-minded terrorists to attack U.S. diplomats is dangerous as a piece of propaganda, but it hardly equates to any real capacity on AQAP’s part.

Third, it would seem the embassy closings were to some degree motivated by a fear of another Benghazi attack. An order from Zawahiri is certainly threatening, but the question remains: Had the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi not occurred, would the unprecedented embassy closings have taken place? What is more, if the embassies had not been closed, would there have been a resurgent concern for AQAP’s ability to launch attacks?

Closing embassies and the resulting media coverage gave AQAP the spotlight it desperately wants. Certainly they remain a dangerous organization, but it is important to keep them in perspective. Even as Yemen militants plot terror, it is AQAP that should be afraid.

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...