Yemen is ground zero of a high alert for a potential terrorist attack on US targets, but what local Al Qaeda franchise AQAP has in mind remains a mystery.
As intercepted communications about an alleged terrorist attack shut down embassies across the region, the brunt of attention has been on the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a terror franchise that US officials have dubbed the most dangerous branch of the global militant group.
Sanaa has remained largely calm, with capital residents seemingly more concerned about preparations for the upcoming Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan than the threat of the attack. Despite reports of an unprecedented security presence, the streets of the city appear almost normal, even if the site of spy planes for two mornings straight has had many here nervously scanning the sky.
The result of a 2009 merger of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, AQAP has earned notoriety for the talent and strategic vision of its local and Saudi leadership and for carrying out notorious attacks such as the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which took place in Yemen’s southern port of Aden.
But while the danger posed by AQAP may be undisputed, its ultimate strategy remains opaque.
"After being pushed out of the territory they had in Shabwa and Abyan AQAP fell into a bit of debate over what direction to take moving forward,” said Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge, a recently released book on Yemen and AQAP. “The group may have come to a conclusion about strategy, but there isn't much in the public realm that would allow us to discern what that strategy is, if indeed there is one."
It’s been more than a year since AQAP's last major attack in Sanaa – a May 2012 suicide bombing that killed more than a hundred Yemeni military cadets – and American and Yemeni security officials have stressed that intelligence suggests that the group is prepared to dramatically break their silence. Nonessential staff at the British and American embassies in Sanaa have already been evacuated, raising suspicions that the alert was provoked by fears of an attack like the 2008 assault on the US Embassy in Sanaa, when Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives breached the outer barriers of the compound, killing six Yemeni policemen and seven civilians.
Many analysts also consider AQAP the most dangerous of the series of Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant groups that have emerged across the region. It's the group's failed plots against American passenger airplanes that have earned the group its infamy in the US, particularly a botched Christmas Day attack by a Nigerian AQAP-trained operative in 2010.
But most Yemenis tend to equate the group with more locally focused affiliated fighters like those of Ansar al-Sharia, an AQAP-linked group that seized control of swathes of territory in the country’s restive south in 2011, taking advantage the central government’s weakened hand to establish self-governing Islamic Emirates meting out harsh interpretations of Islamic law.
A US-backed Yemeni military offensive last spring dislodged the militants from many areas once under their control, but they managed to retain their hold on the rugged district of al-Mahfad while expanding their presence in many areas in the country where the central government’s presence remains nearly nonexistent.
As most Yemenis see it, AQAP’s strength is a result of internal Yemeni issues. Militants, they say, have been able to take advantage of power vacuums, capitalizing on resentments fueled by underdevelopment, unemployment and widespread oppositions to a host of US policies.
Few of the American government’s actions have ignited as much controversy here as targeted killings of AQAP-affiliated militants, largely by remotely piloted drone aircraft. Obama administration officials have cast them as a key tool in the war against terrorism and Yemeni president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi has publicly acknowledged that the strikes take place with his government’s permission.
But many here are deeply opposed to the strikes, describing them as violations of Yemen’s sovereignty and vociferously condemning cases of civilian casualties. Even if the strikes have killed high-ranking operatives like deputy emir Said al-Shihri, by inflaming anti-American feelings and engendering pro-Al Qaeda sentiment, they ultimately do more harm than good, they argue.
“Eradicating Al Qaeda is about robbing them of a place to operate,” said a tribal leader from the central province of Marib, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “Improving the economy and government services will harm Al Qaeda. By turning Yemenis against the government, the drone strikes are only helping them.”
In light of the raised alert level, focus is on AQAP’s potential offensive moves. Since losing control of ground they once held, they’ve made few, if any, concrete efforts toward establishing governance elsewhere and, despite the absence of large scale attacks, they’ve still been blamed for a series of assassinations of Yemeni security officials that have occurred across the country. Analysts are reluctant to speak with much certainty regarding the current threat.
The Yemeni government, while stressing its commitment to countering the threat and its belief in its severity, appears to think that the evacuation of the US and British embassy's staff was a bit of an overreaction.
"Yemen has taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions in the capital Sanaa," the Yemeni embassy in Washington said in a statement Tuesday. "While the government of Yemen appreciates foreign governments' concern for the safety of their citizens, the evacuation of embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism."