Since protests erupted in Yemen last February, ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP) has been almost absent from the news unfolding from that country. By contrast, the movement had been at the top of the Yemeni news agenda since its formation in January 2009 by a merger between Yemeni members of al-Qaeda and Saudi members of the organisation who fled their own country after being defeated in clashes with authorities between 2003 and 2007.
AQAP quickly became a major threat to the Yemeni regime. They have conducted suicide attacks against embassies, government buildings and even oil installations. Also, they have clashed with authorities and targeted security officers. Moreover, they have planned attacks outside Yemen, such as an attempt to assassinate Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in August 2009, by means of a suicide bomb. The group also mobilized a Nigerian young jihadist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009. Since then, AQAP has proved to be resilient in Yemen thanks to the organisation’s strategy of appealing to the local tribes and creating alliances with them. For instance, American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, whose assassination American President Barak Obama authorised last year, remains safe and sound because of the protection provided to him by his tribe.
In an interview with the BBC, the Yemini president Ali Abdullah Saleh claimed that al-Qaeda had infiltrated the opposition movement in Yemen. He warned that the west would pay a price if it encouraged them. But many Yemenis consider this statement a tactic deployed simply to maintain western support for his regime as their best option for fighting against al-Qaeda in Yemen. However, while the protests in Yemen have drawn international attention to the Yemen streets rather than al-Qaeda’s activities, it has, at the same time, caused the withdrawal of the authorities from certain areas in the country. Al-Qaeda seems to be filling this vacuum and implementing Shari’a rule in certain areas. Many observers expect that this role of AQAP will be strengthened by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, given the al-Qaeda leader’s Yemeni origins and their strong presence in that country.
On 22nd April, jihadist websites released a Pal Talk interview with one of al-Qaeda’s religious ideologues, Adel al-Abbab (aka Abu al-Zubair al-Abbab). Al-Abbab, the son of a Yemeni preacher who used to be an Imam of a mosque in Sana’a, was receiving questions from al-Qaeda sympathisers in a Pal Talk chat room. Al-Abbab, who is the Shari’a advisor of al-Qaeda in Yemen, ironically, has studied in the Scientific Da’awa Centre for Shari’a Sciences, which represents the apolitical traditional salafi movement in Yemen and holds strong disagreements with al-Qaeda and affiliated Salafi-jihadist movements.
After graduating from the Centre, al-Abbab worked at the same Centre as a librarian, where he had a reputation for regular disputation with teachers and fellow-students. He left this job a few months after February 2006, when 23 jihadists escaped from the central prison in Sana’a. Al-Qaeda in Yemen was regrouping at that time. The Yemeni authorities, in July 2007, arrested his father (later released) and three brothers in order to put pressure on him to surrender.
It was at that point that his star has started to shine as one of al-Qaeda’s ideologues in Yemen. Al-Abbab stated that al-Qaeda had formed a group called “the Movement of al-Shari’a Supporters” to attract local people to Sharia rule in the areas under the control of al-Qaeda. He said that the influence of jihadists is increasing in Sa’da, al-Jawf, Ma'rib, and Shabwah where they have military checkpoints and rule some areas by Shari’a. al-Abbab said that al-Qaeda have “many cells” in San’a and their influence is increasing in Aden, but that Ja’ar is fully controlled by al-Qaeda and they have implemented the first ‘Islamic’ punishment against a man who had drunk alcohol by lashing him a few days ago. The Al-Qaeda Shari’a advisor explained how the influence of al-Qaeda is increasing by turning Shari’a rule ‘into popular action instead of keeping it as an elite one’. The group provides public services and solves people’s problems, according to al-Abbab.
However, Al-Abbab added that, "what is keeping us from coming out in the open more completely is that we lack many administrative personnel and the money with which to offer services to the people". He claimed that people in these areas are very welcoming of Shari’a rule although they are concerned about who will pay their salaries when the regime collapses. Jihadists in Yemen, in order to solve this problem, are encouraging agriculture and Zakat (a compulsory giving of a set proportion of one's wealth to charity). Al-Abbab says that they are implementing Shari’a gradually; this is similar to what is going on in Somalia.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups have been absent from the Arab political scene shaped by the popular movements demanding democracy. Moreover it is expected that these groups will lose ground if Arab movements are successful in creating democratic alternatives in the Arab world. However, they are trying to make up for what they lack elsewhere in several areas, including Yemen.