AQAP at a crossroads: emulate or moderate

AQAP at a crossroads: emulate or moderate
The emergence of the Islamic State has left al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate in a bind. There is a Sunni power vacuum in the country, but AQAP needs to decide whether copying IS tactics will help the group fill it.
7 min read
16 December, 2014
AQAP is in a serious bind competing for Sunni support in Yemen with IS (AFP)

A Western journalist pleads for his life in a video message, only to be killed days later. Soldiers, who by fighting for the state have apostatised according to the men holding them, are beheaded on camera.

This is not the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) operating in Iraq and Syria. This is Yemen, and the group – al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, and perhaps its strongest – is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

But the acts are certainly reminiscent of IS attacks. The videos subsequently disseminated echo IS propaganda. Yet, in Syria, the IS group and al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, have been at each other’s throats for much of 2014.

     IS has reset the mean in terms of what is considered normal terrorist behaviour.

- Adam Baron

Is AQAP nevertheless being influenced by IS? Undoubtedly, the emergence of the group has had a profound impact on AQAP, with resulting internal divisions over tactics, over whether to copy IS methods or resist them.

“When IS emerged, AQAP switched to much more brutal tactics. They specifically targeted Houthis and carried out these beheadings,” said Iona Craig, a freelance journalist based in Yemen who reports for The Times. “They're not the kind of tactics AQAP used before.”

AQAP in a bind

To the outside observer, IS and al-Qaeda seem to share a similar historical background and a shared ideological goal. That perception is shared by many of the rank-and-file, especially in areas such as Yemen, where there is no current infighting between supporters of the two groups.

AQAP, however, is facing a difficult balancing act. They are al-Qaeda, there is no questioning that. Their leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, is the designated number two to al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

At the same time, the IS group’s expansion in Iraq and Syria are resonating with AQAP’s supporters and their fighters. IS fighters take on the West, Arab regimes, and the Shia – what’s not to like?

For months, AQAP were careful to appear neutral on the Islamist militant infighting in Syria, despite al-Nusra being a fellow al-Qaeda affiliate. There were even suggestions that AQAP could play a mediating role, allowing IS and al-Qaeda to unite, defeat the ‘infidels’, and finally declare an Islamic State.

But the IS group jumped the gun.

AQAP bit their tongue when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared caliph in mid-June. But even their patience ran out when the group announced that Yemen was a part of Baghdadi’s caliphate, and that other mujahideen, read al-Qaeda, must join them, or be invalidated.

While attempting to maintain a certain level of respect, IS supporters are still referred to as “brothers”, AQAP have not taken this lying down.

“The necessary conditions [for declaring the caliphate] have not been met … We do not think this caliphate is valid … and we do not think that this declaration has invalidated the legitimacy of the other global Islamic groups,” said Harith al-Nadhiri, an AQAP leader, in a video released in late November.

“They surprised us with their declaration of a caliphate, the effect of which is to spread strife and fighting to other fronts,” Nadhiri added.

A commong enemy

Still, AQAP faces a serious problem. IS have laid a claim to their patch, and IS don’t do sharing.

For now, it appears as though fighting is unlikely. Militants of the radical Sunni Islamist tendency in Yemen face not just American drones – and the occasional boot on the ground – but also the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia militant group who took over the capital Sanaa in September and have continued to expand their control across the country. AQAP have already participated in battles in Ibb and al-Baydha, both areas in central Yemen, against the Houthis.

“You have this group that's calling itself Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Jazeera al-Arabiya [The Partisans of the Islamic State in the Arabian Peninsula], but it seems almost like paper groups at this point,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.

“Even if certain people within the AQAP umbrella disagree with their stance on IS, they still need to stick together in the face of the Houthis,” Baron, who covered Yemen for McClatchy Newspapers and the Economist, among others, between 2011 and 2014, added.

Mamoun Hatem is one of the most prominent figures associated with AQAP who has come out for IS. Well-respected in AQAP circles, he had already declared his support for the IS group before the caliphate declaration in June, and laid the blame for the infighting in Syria on al-Nusra’s doorstep. He has not backed down.

“To all the al-Qaeda affiliates … here is the Islamic State … here is what we wanted and what we have worked towards,” Hatem said in a widely-disseminated voice recording in June.

Hatem’s declaration comes alongside mysterious messages that have appeared online from Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Jazeera al-Arabiya.

In early November the group released a voice recording declaring that “the mujahideen of Yemen” were announcing their support for IS. This followed a written message posted online and sent to Yemeni media outlets, in which the authors said that supporting IS was a must, and that they were “soldiers of our leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”.

Could the gruff Hatem be behind this? And could he be a potential leader for IS in Yemen?

According to Craig, he may have already been disowned by AQAP.

“People in AQAP say he is no longer in the organisation, and that they are not responsible for his actions,” Craig said.

There are also rumours that he has been given a significant sum of money to recruit IS fighters in Yemen.

“It would be natural that, under the umbrella of a caliphate … funds would be provided to recruit supporters. So it is not out of the question that money has been sent by IS,” said Saeed al-Jumahi, a Sanaa-based researcher on al-Qaeda.

Hearts and minds

For now, the majority of the videos shared by Hatem’s Twitter page to his 20,000 followers show him gearing up tribes in central Yemen to fight the Houthis. The fight between Sunni radical militants, whether they be AQAP- or IS-linked, and the Houthis is an existential one – Yemen is not big enough for the two camps.

But there is a battle for hearts and minds. Spokesmen for AQAP have lately tried to describe as abberrations the killing of American journalist Luke Somers and his fellow hostage Pierre Korkie, a South African humanitarian aid worker, as well as the beheadings of captured soldiers.

On 2 December, AQAP recorded a ‘press conference’ with a senior leader, Nasr al-Anisi, fielding questions sent in from Yemeni and foreign journalists. Anisi reiterated the group’s position towards IS, and sought to present AQAP as a group that avoided the excesses for which IS has become notorious.

“[Beheadings] are isolated events and individual acts that we have forbidden a repeat of,” Anisi said. “Of course, some of our brothers are affected by the beheadings they see and that have become widespread in recent times, but these are scenes that we do not agree with and we repudiate strongly.”

Jumahi thinks that Anisi's clarification is important.

“The point here is that AQAP seem to have stepped back from it [the beheading of the soldiers], and considered it vicious, and that it was not appropriate to their ideology,” Jumahi said.

Extremism is relative. With the emergence of IS, AQAP, and the wider al-Qaeda organization, suddenly appears moderate. At a time when Sunni political Islam in Yemen has been almost neutered, after the castration of the Muslim Brotherhood-leaning Islah Party, AQAP is seeking to fill a vacuum among Sunnis afraid of the encroaching Houthis.

Yet, AQAP also needs to shore up their base. IS declared a caliphate and went from victory to victory. The group controls important cities; AQAP couldn’t hold even a few small towns in southern Yemen.

“I think what you're seeing is … IS has reset the mean in terms of what is considered normal terrorist behaviour,” said Baron. “IS wants to portray AQAP as being soft, as being weak, as betraying the caliphate.”

“This risks inflaming things further if both sides opt to try to outdo each other to show that they're the real mujahideen,” he added.