June 6, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Quadrupling of Al-Qaeda in Yemen

• On June 2, the U.S. State Department released its 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism, including an estimated strength for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) at up to 4,000 members

• The previous four Country Report estimates on AQAP numbers ranged from ‘several hundred’ in 2010 to ‘approximately one thousand’ in 2014

• The quadrupling of the estimated size of AQAP is a direct result of the years of political vacuums and military campaigns that have brought ruin to Yemen

• Photographs of a massive AQAP gathering in Mukallah in March, along with the group’s gains in the conflict, suggest that even the new estimate is likely too low.


One of the more consequential details in the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2015, released on June 2, received very little notice. The estimated strength of the group long-described by the U.S. government as the most capable and worrisome al-Qaeda affiliate has quadrupled since the last report. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has swollen in size and made enormous financial gains since Yemen’s political crisis turned into the ongoing war in March 2015.

The 2015 Country Report posits that AQAP had 4,000 members as of last year. The estimated AQAP strength in the 2014 report was approximately 1,000 members, as in the 2013 and 2012 reports. The first year the group was listed in the annual report was 2010, when it was said to have ‘several hundred’ members. The 2011 report said AQAP had ‘a few thousand members,’ and attributed the growth to the chaotic Arab Spring demonstrations in Yemen and the government’s suppression of resistance.

The complete collapse of the central government and ongoing military campaigns have resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. The conflict has also empowered AQAP more than at any other point since its current incarnation was announced by Nasir al-Wuhayshi in January 2009. An April 2016 Reuters report included estimates of the group’s financial gains after seizing control of the port city of Mukallah. The group looted an estimated $100 million from banks, and was taking in approximately $2 million a day in taxes on goods coming into the port. 

AQAP left Mukallah in April 2016 after holding it for a year, during which the group fed off the economy while building up its membership base. The loss of Mukallah is a real blow to AQAP’s quest for a proto-state along the lines of what its rival, the so-called Islamic State, has in Iraq and Syria. Unlike the Islamic State, AQAP realized it could not hold Mukallah against the Saudi-led coalition and left the city to avoid a knock-out blow. Despite retreating from Mukallah, the gains the group made in the year it held the city of 500,000 will sustain it for some time and likely enable its continued growth. It is also likely that the current estimate of 4,000 AQAP members is low.

The Yemeni people will bear the brunt of this counterterrorism catastrophe. The fighting in Yemen has not ended between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, the latter heavily supported by the United States. Even if the fighting ended soon, whoever assumes control over the shattered country will face an AQAP with far more resources and recruits than the AQAP against which previous Yemeni governments have struggled.

AQAP also presents a threat far beyond Yemen’s borders. The group has a proven track record of creative and skilled bomb making, and aviation remains its preferred target. The West has long tried and failed to deny terrorist groups sanctuary from which they can plot, plan, and prepare for complex mass casualty attacks—as al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan up to 2001. Yemen is not a mere terror sanctuary in which a terrorist group can build capacity; Yemen, like Iraq and Syria, has become both a financial windfall and a live-fire training camp


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