Internationally, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is best known for attempting to bring down a U.S. airliner and for its links to the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some U.S. officials consider the group the most dangerous node of the global jihad. But on home turf in Yemen, AQAP’s reputation is more closely associated with political theater.
Yemeni political factions have for years traded accusations that their rivals were using Al-Qaeda for their own political ends. Those rumors have intensified since a Saudi-led military campaign began in March, targeting forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his latest allies of convenience, the Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels. (Al Jazeera’s film “Al-Qaeda Informant” was initiated in the summer of 2014.)
At every opportunity, the Houthis have claimed that they are fighting Al-Qaeda, accusing the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi — who fled for Riyadh after rebel forces took control of the capital, Sanaa — and the Saudis of colluding with the group. But Saleh’s opponents make the same allegations against Saleh, often alleging that he has been controlling the group like puppeteer.
AQAP has its roots in a 2006 prison break that saw a number of the country’s most dangerous prisoners, including the group’s emir, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, escape from what was theoretically one of Yemen’s most secure prisons. But allegations of Yemeni government ties to extremist groups long predate the founding of AQAP.
The dynamics are similar to those of the Cold War–era internecine conflicts in the region. Eager to push back against the perceived threat of communism — heightened in what was then the separate country of North Yemen by the existence of South Yemen, a Marxist state — a number of regional powers encouraged the spread of hard-line religious ideologies in Yemen. Saleh’s predecessor, the Nasserist-leaning Ibrahim al-Hamdi, in the 1970s appointed to a senior religious position the hard-line cleric Sheikh Abdulmajid al-Zindani, a controversial figure associated with the religious-based Islah party. Zindani and a handful of other members of Islah, whose ideology combined Muslim Brotherhood influences with conservative Wahhabi theology, has been accused by the United States government of having ties to Al-Qaeda. In the 1980s, Zindani and other clerics publicly urged Yemenis to head to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Soviets.
Not all Yemenis who fought in Afghanistan became members of Al-Qaeda, but many returned home radicalized. In the wake of the two Yemens’ 1990 unification, these battle-hardened fighters proved a boon as northern forces — split between Saleh’s backers and his then-allies in Islah — jostled to weaken the socialists and consolidate power in the hands of elites based in Sanaa, the capital of what had been North Yemen. Many Afghanistan veterans were resettled in Yemen, some gaining military positions. They played key roles, allegedly, in a campaign of assassinations against leading socialists in the run-up to the 1994 north-south civil war, and their support was essential to the defeat of pro-secession forces.
But as Osama bin Laden and his network turned their attention to waging a global war on the West, the Yemeni-based Afghanistan veterans became an international problem. On Oct. 12, 2000, the destroyer USS Cole was struck by an explosives-laden skiff in the southern port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. Navy personnel.
After the formation of AQAP in a 2009 merger of Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi franchises, it came to be seen as a significant and direct threat to the West, prompting the U.S. government to identify Yemen as a main front in its global campaign against Al-Qaeda. Saleh’s government was cast as a vital ally in Washington’s global “war on terrorism” and received increasing amounts of aid and military supplies.
In the wake of the 2011 uprising that forced Saleh from office, relations with the U.S. grew even closer as Hadi, Saleh’s former vice president, took power. Hadi embraced the U.S. more publicly than Saleh did, even publicly backing the controversial U.S. tactic of targeting Al-Qaeda suspects with drone-fired missiles.
Despite increased U.S. backing for Sanaa, AQAP appears to have grown since the 2006 prison break, its ranks swelled by the mounting turmoil in Yemen and, many allege, blowback from U.S. actions in the region. But there have long been whispers regarding something more.
“The fact is, the Yemeni government — any Yemeni government — benefits from the threat of Al-Qaeda,” a Yemeni member of parliament once told me. “And as long as it’s a profitable business, it will always have a presence here.”
The continued resilience of AQAP has fueled allegations that, regardless of the honest efforts of many Yemeni security officers, their government has been less than fully committed to the fight against Al-Qaeda. Some of the allegations that political figures or factions in Yemen are puppet masters controlling groups like AQAP may be highly exaggerated. Even absent any manipulations, Al-Qaeda and similar groups would likely thrive in a country as poor, unequal, corrupt and poorly governed as Yemen is. But that does not exonerate Yemen’s power brokers from charges that they have played a role in enabling AQAP’s growth. Their failures have helped create a situation that has given Al-Qaeda significant room to grow. All the key internal and external stakeholders in the country’s conflict share some of the blame for creating an environment in Yemen in which groups like AQAP will likely prosper for some time to come.