Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

A chronological account of how Yemen has turned into the hub of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Narration: Paris; January 9, 2015. Over one million people fill the streets and the squares of the city, all in mourning. Two days earlier, an attack on a satirical magazine, Charli Hebdo, shook the world. Two terrorists stormed the editorial office and murdered twelve people, supposedly in the name of Islam. No group claim responsibility for the attack; no group but AQAP, an acronym for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic], Nasser al-Ansi: “As for the blessed Battle of Paris, We in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claim responsibility for this Operation.”

Narration: Over the last few years, Yemen has emerged as the breeding grounds for AQAP terrorist attacks. But how the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula became a stronghold for the most lethal al-Qaeda franchise? And is there any glimmer of hope for this corner of the world to redeem from the curse of this terrorist group?

In the late 1980s, the Saleh regime fostered the idea of “Jihad” in what was then North Yemen by repatriating thousands of Yemeni nationals who had fought the USSR in Afghanistan. Saleh dispatched them to fight the Marxist government of South Yemen and to crush southern secessionists. These Yemenis were later joined by other Arab veterans of the Afghan War, foremost among them Osama bin Laden, who advocated a central role for Yemen in what he called “global jihad”. As a result, a corps of militants who had trained under bin Laden formed several militant groups. The last and the most important one was AQY, or Al-Qaeda in Yemen, formed in 1998. Former US Ambassador to Yemen [November 7,1997 - August 30, 2001], Barbara Bodine, writes in her memoir:“In 1997, there was already an Al Qaeda presence. We knew about it. The Yemenis knew about it. Everyone knew about it.”

Narration: Bodine’s recollection of the region reveals the reality that the US was well aware of the terrorist activity in the region but took no preventative measures.

In October 2000, a skiff piloted by two members of AQY detonated several hundred pounds of explosives into the hull of the USS Cole, while in port in Aden, which was moored in the port of Aden. 17 U.S. servicemen were killed. The attack foreshadowed a day of terror that would rock the US in less than a year.

Narration: 9/11 gave George Bush carte balance to invade the whole planet.

George Bush: “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorist and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with Al- Qaeda, but if does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found and stopped and defeated.”

Narration: The aim was supposedly to thwart terrorist attacks – to uproot Al-Qaeda. Afghanistan was in the front line. At the same time, Washington dispatched Special Forces and intelligence personnel to Yemen to aid the counterterrorism campaign. In 2002, AQY's leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was killed and by the end of 2003, the group faced a precipitous membership decline.

US troops were still tilting at windmills in Afghanistan when Al-Qaeda raised its ugly head again in the Arabian Peninsula with full force and vigor. In February 2006, 23 convicted terrorists escaped from a high-security prison in Sana'a, among them Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the current leader of AQAP, who had served as a personal assistant to Bin Laden and also fought at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. Two years later, in 2008, remnants of the local al-Qaeda franchise in Saudi Arabia crossed the border to join their Yemeni comrades. The result of this unholy alliance was AQAP, or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most dangerous Qaeda franchise.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

Narration: So far, AQAP has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks within and without the Arabian Peninsula: an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a in 2008, the bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in 2008 and Korean tourists in 2009. In May 2012, a suicide bomber killed more than ninety Yemeni soldiers rehearsing for a military parade in Sana'a. A December 2013 attack on the defense ministry and military hospital left more than fifty people dead.

AQAP has mastered recruitment through propaganda and media campaigns. Sada al-Malahim ("The Echo of Battles") is the group’s magazine in Arabic, tailored for a Yemeni audience. It offers theological support and praise for so-called jihadists. For their Western audiences, AQAP publishes Inspire, an English-language propaganda magazine.

To keep its coffer swelling, AQAP follows the patterns of other al-Qaeda affiliates; this includes sources such as bank robberies, drug proceeds, and phony charities. Kidnapping for ransom continues to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenues for AQAP and other al-Qaeda groups. At December 2009 classified memo from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated donors in Saudi Arabia were "the most significant source" of funding to terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

SOUNDBITE [English] Hillary Clinton: “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, The Taliban, Led and other terrorists groups, donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorists group worldwide.”

Narration: Under President Saleh’s rule, Yemen offered Al Qaeda a prime location to establish itself. The notorious dictator had a long history of allying himself with such extremist groups against Communist or Shia domestic opponents. That’s while, shortly after 9/11, Saleh flew into Washington to pledge his support to George Bush his war on terror. This way, he managed to play both sides—Al Qaeda and the US. Saleh had been America’s counter-terrorism partner in Yemen, but in reality did little to take on AQAP and regularly used its presence as a bargaining chip to better his political and personal fortunes.

The fall of Saleh in late 2011 didn’t change things for better. With the state of Yemen still in anguish and the people suffering from food shortages, a poor economy, and little prospects for a prosperous future, Yemen offered AQAP the perfect ground to grow.

While the country’s impotent army has failed to tame AQAP, US drones have done more harm than good. The Obama Administration uses the word "surgical" to describe its drone strikes in Yemen and other parts of the world, which in reality is no more than Orwellian propaganda. Hundreds of innocent civilians have lost their lives in the drone attacks since 2002. That’s while AQAP continues to flourish from the chaos the country has been plunging into. In early April, 2015, AQAP militants launched a jailbreak near Mukalla that freed about 300 prisoners, including several dozen of their comrades. The Houthis who are AQAP’s most determined foe in Yemen have been preoccupied with aerial assaults from the Saudi-led Arab coalition since March 2015.

It seems that as far as Yemen faces political and economic challenges, AQAP has a chance to survive and as far as AQAP is in the country, Yemen has no chance to thrive. How long this vicious circle is to go on in the poorest Arab country?   

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