A resurgent Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has expanded its reach in Yemen to unprecedented levels and quadrupled its manpower from “approximately 1,000 members” in 2014 to “4,000” last year, according to the Department of State (DOS).
The Yemen-based AQAP, long considered by the United States government to be the most dangerous and potent branch of al-Qaeda, has reportedly benefited from the ongoing political and security chaos in Yemen, growing in strength and expanding the territory it controls.
In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2015, a congressionally mandated analytical and statistical review of global terrorism, DOS notes:
In 2015, AQAP took advantage of Yemen’s deteriorating political and economic environment after the Yemeni government was overthrown by Houthi rebels in January. The United States and several other countries closed their embassies in February amid the violence. In April, AQAP stormed the city of Al Mukalla, seizing control of government buildings, releasing terrorists from prison, and stealing millions from the central bank. AQAP has since consolidated its control over Al Mukalla and has expanded its reach through large portions of Yemen’s south.
Mukalla, which has been deemed AQAP’s capital, is a southeastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Capturing Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and the capital of the country’s largest province of Hadramaut, was a major gain for AQAP, noted The Fiscal Times in late April.
However, AQAP withdrew from Mukalla that month after holding it for a year, during which the jihadist group amassed a fortune and built up its membership base.
“Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State [ISIS/ISIL] abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state [in Mukalla] with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port,” revealed a Reuters investigation published in April, before AQAP left the port city.
“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,” now notes The Soufan Group, a New York-based terrorism research firm. “It is also likely that the current estimate of 4,000 AQAP members is low.”
AQAP’s strength in Yemen has experienced a four-fold increase, from “approximately one thousand members” in 2014 to “up to four thousand members,” according to the Department of State’s country reports on terrorism for those two years.
According to the Reuters investigation, the ongoing civil war in Yemen has helped AQAP “become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.”
Moreover, The Fiscal Times reported in February that AQAP, capitalizing on the turmoil in Yemen, controlled more territory than any other jihadist group in the country, “stretching vertically in the center of the country for 270 miles from the Saudi border in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, and 420 miles horizontally from north of Aden, Yemen’s second largest city in the southwestern corner of the country, to the village of Qusay’ir in the east.”
The Reuters investigation added that the group controls 373 miles of coastline in Yemen.
In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, launched a military intervention in Yemen that has been primarily focused on defeating the Iran-allied Shiite rebels known as the Houthis, who also control territory in the country.
Meanwhile, AQAP has grown in size and strength in addition to making enormous financial gains since Yemen’s political crisis evolved into the ongoing the civil war in March 2015.
AQAP’s “emergence is the most striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen,” noted the Reuters investigation. “The campaign, backed by the United States, has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago,” when the group’s formation was officially announced by Nasir al-Wuhayshi in January 2009.
“By adopting many of the tactics Islamic State uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP has expanded its own fiefdom,” adds Reuters. “The danger is that the group, which organized the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its hardline ideology.”
Like in 2015, AQAP’s membership was also estimated at approximately 1,000 jihadists in the 2013 and 2012 DOS terrorism assessments.
In 2010, the first year the group was listed in the annual terrorism assessment, it was reported to have “several hundred” members.
Attributing the increase to the chaotic Arab Spring protests in Yemen and the government crackdown on the resistance, the 2011 report estimated that AQAP had “a few thousand members.”