The United States’ killing on January 29, of the leader of Yemen’s Al Qaeda franchise, Qasim al-Rimi, who had led the faction since its last significant expansion in 2015, has been celebrated as a victory against terrorism and a major blow to the organization.
The conditions that had enabled Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to flourish still linger, as the faction may split and present violent threats to Yemen’s stability.
Yet the conditions that had enabled Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to flourish still linger, as the faction may split and present violent threats to Yemen’s stability. It has already been linked to an attack on UAE-backed Security Belt forces in the Abyan province on February 12.
“His death further degrades AQAP and the global al-Qaeda movement, and it brings us closer to eliminating the threats these groups pose to our national security,” the US statement on al-Rimi’s killing read. “The United States, our interests, and our allies are safer as a result of his death.”
Al-Rimi became an Al Qaeda trainer in his early twenties, having “trained terrorists at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the 1990s” according to the US State Department, then gradually progressing through AQAP’s ranks.
Al Qaeda in Yemen is one of the faction’s oldest franchises. Foreign fighters had returned from Afghanistan and Iraq and joined the Yemeni branch, gifting Al Qaeda in Yemen battle-hardened combatants. In 2009, Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s branches merged into one, begetting AQAP.
Unlike the so-called Islamic State in Yemen (IS-Y), which has struggled to establish a foothold in the country despite staging some terror attacks, AQAP had established deeper roots in Yemen giving it an advantage over IS-Y. It soared into prominence following the Arab Spring, exploiting the subsequent chaos and seizing more territory.
AQAP soared into prominence following the Arab Spring, exploiting the subsequent chaos and seizing more territory.
After surviving a crackdown from the post-Arab Spring government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saudi Arabia’s war since March 2015 was a gift to AQAP. Riyadh’s bombing campaign led to the destruction of Yemen’s state and infrastructure, while further impoverishing the country, enabling the faction to acquire more recruits and establish various smuggling networks to fund its own war efforts and expansion.
Meanwhile the US has ramped up its operations against the faction under Donald Trump, delivering an increase of airstrikes from Barack Obama’s administration. However, Trump’s first raid against AQAP in January 2017, which also targeted Al-Rimi in his hideout, was a notorious failure. Not only did the leader survive, 25 civilians were killed, including nine children under the age of 13, along with a US Navy Seal.
US airstrikes, nonetheless, continued targeting AQAP leaders, hitting prominent figures such as leading bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri in August 2018, whose death Trump confirmed last October. Then, in November, the US placed a $10 million bounty for information on other Al Qaeda leaders, including $6 million for Saad bin Atef Al Awlaki – who organized the group’s operations in Yemen’s Shabwah province, and up to $4 million for leading figure Ibrahim Ahmed Al Qosi.
On February 23, the faction officially announced its appointment of Sheikh Khalid Batarfi as leader, who led AQAP’s takeover of the Abyan Governorate in 2011 and became its “Emir.” A choice that could reorient the faction’s stance.
Still the loss of its experienced leader could further limit AQAP’s strength as an organization, particularly as it has lost much of its territory from 2016 following a joint US-UAE crackdown. It is hardly as lethal as it once was, having been linked to various international terror attacks including the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015—resulting in further suppression. The group currently struggles to gain more territory.
Even if AQAP does not recover to its previous form, the faction or its fighters could still partake in new forms of violence.
However, the conditions that had initially given Al Qaeda the freedom to advance in Yemen still largely persist. Meaning that even if AQAP does not recover to its previous form, the faction or its fighters could still partake in new forms of violence.
“AQAP looks to be in a downward spiral. Evidence suggests that some of its fragmenting parts may be co-opted by various actors in Yemen’s war, to serve their political agenda,” Elisabeth Kendall, Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, told Inside Arabia.
“This makes it increasingly difficult to define what AQAP really is, who’s in and who’s out. AQAP may be evolving as ever more of its fighters transition their identity from holy warriors into guns-for-hire.”
Various parties in Yemen have been accused of supporting or cooperating with AQAP. A statement from the separatist UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council following al-Rimi’s killing blamed the government for fostering and assimilating the faction. Yet the coalition and aligned militias have also reportedly worked with or recruited AQAP fighters often in their anti-Houthi campaign.
Al Qaeda has particularly benefited from Yemen’s unregulated weapons flow; arms trafficking has empowered militias which have fought alongside AQAP.
Al Qaeda has particularly benefited from Yemen’s unregulated weapons flow; arms trafficking has empowered militias which have fought alongside AQAP, or even handed military equipment directly to the faction. Many of these weapons have had US origins, initially delivered to the US’ coalition allies and then transferred to Al Qaeda-aligned militias, evidently undermining Washington’s efforts against the group.
Meanwhile the UAE’s had reportedly paid AQAP to simply withdraw from its stronghold city of Mukalla in 2016, rather than fighting it, showing Abu Dhabi had sought to contain the faction instead of defeating it.
Furthermore, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE facilitated the Riyadh Agreement to unify the government and separatist Southern Transitional Council in November, both states are now considered leading Yemen’s peace-making, meaning there will be less attention to defeating the group.
Yet should the fragile Riyadh Agreement collapse due to ongoing tensions between the two sides, and if no truce is forged between the Houthis and government forces, AQAP or aligned groups could easily re-emerge. Continued US bombing campaigns also will not be enough to cleanse the country of extremism.
As AQAP still has thousands of fighters, and its presence has largely been tolerated by states intervening in the conflict, its members may continue to splinter off, serving as mercenaries or establishing other extremist factions.
Without proactive international efforts to end the war in Yemen or the creation of a positive-long term solution including initiatives to rebuild the country, even with the killing of faction-leader Qasim al-Rimi, the threat which AQAP had previously posed will remain in Yemen.