Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will be hard to extinguish given the endemic nature of instability in Yemen, says Anthony Skinner

The failed bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight by a Nigerian national in December 2009 has not only drawn international attention to Yemen as a base and training ground for of al-Qaeda but also as a staging point for terrorist attacks in the region and beyond.

The extent of international concern was reflected during the January 2010 London conference on Yemen when Western and Gulf foreign ministers expressed their commitment to aiding the Yemini government in its fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and supporting the Yemini government in its efforts to build law enforcement, legislative, judicial and security capabilities.

Although still lacking in detail, the plan is unlikely to neutralise Yemen’s terrorist network in the next few years. This is because AQAP enjoys strong traction in Yemen and is forging increasingly strong ties with other regional al-Qaeda branches and affiliates, such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab.

The difficulty in flushing AQAP from Yemen

That AQAP is unlikely to be neutralised any time soon derives in no small part from the lawlessness that prevails in much of Yemen – conditions that are ideal for al-Qaeda to build its capabilities and plan attacks locally, in the region and internationally. It is noteworthy that government control is confined largely to Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.

The methods deployed by President Saleh to maintain power also draws attention to the potential for Yemen to become a failed state on the lines of Somalia. Saleh has traditionally deployed a mix of techniques including patronage, co-option and coercion to maintain power and hold the country together. However, the government will find it increasingly difficult to fund its struggle against the country’s rebels and militants without significant and sustained long term foreign help.

This is because the government is losing an important source of revenue, namely fossil fuels, to feed his patronage network. In November 2008 the World Bank predicted that Yemen’s oil and gas reserves would plummet over 2009 and 2010 and fall to zero by 2017 (fossil fuels account for 90% of the country’s exports).

The pressure of rapidly dwindling water resources makes the risk of Yemen becoming a failed state all the greater. According to the Water Basin Management Project, which is funded by the World Bank, Sana’a could run out of drinking water as early as 2025.

This would add oil to the flames of political and sectarian conflict, which have been aggravated by widespread poverty, the uneven distribution of natural resource and a heavily armed civilian population. United Nations figures reveal that nearly half of the population lives on less than US$2 a day, while unemployment is estimated at 35%.

As it is, Yemen’s military and security forces are stretched. The government in Sana’a is trying quell a growing independence movement in the south (north and south Yemen were separate countries before the two united in 1990) and continues to launch anti-terrorism operations against AQAP. It also continues to lock horns with Houthi rebels from the minority Shia Zaidi sect based in the north-western Saada governorate.

While it is possible that a ceasefire will be brokered with the Houthis, such an eventuality is unlikely to diminish the risk of the secessionist struggle in the south from erupting into a full-blown conflict. Such a development would likely be welcomed by AQAP which was reportedly endorsed calls for independence by South Yemen’s rebels.

All of this accounts for Yemen’s categorisation as an extreme risk country (ranking 2.4 out of 10, where higher scores represent higher risk) in Maplecroft’s Conflict and Political Violence Index 2010. The country scores 3.63/10 in Maplecroft’s Terrorism Risk Index 2010, representing an increase from the 4.6/10 recorded the previous year. Somalia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, by comparison score 1.43/10, 0.26/10 and 6.38/10, respectively.

AQAP’s capabilities and regional instability

That al-Qaeda’s capabilities in Yemen are significant is reflected in the September 2008 attack against the US Embassy in Sana’a, which left 16 people dead. It is unclear to what extent the Yemini government’s claim (in January 2010) of killing Abdullah al-Mehdar, the leader of a Yemini al-Qaeda cell, has affected AQAP’s leadership and operational capabilities. However, al-Qaeda has a proven history of resilience in Yemen – Bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.

Saudi Arabia in particular, has reason to be concerned about AQAP’s strong presence next door. The kingdom shares share a joint 1,800km-long porous with Yemen which is porous and difficult to monitor.

While Riyadh’s multi-pronged campaign to tackle militant Islamists has dramatically reduced al-Qaeda’s breathing space in the kingdom, it is also believed to have accounted the merger between al-Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemini wings in January 2009 resulting in the formation of AQAP in Yemen. Riyadh is more than aware that AQAP’s mission is to wage a violent jihad against all ‘infidels’ and ‘apostates’ until the creation of an Islamic state. Toppling the al-Saud family constitutes a key plank in this endeavour.

There is also plenty of evidence to support AQAP’s determination to launch attacks in Saudi Arabia from Yemen. For instance, in October 2009, the Saudi police halted a vehicle near the Yemini border triggering a gun battle which resulted in the death of two suicide bombers clad as women.

AQAP’s most audacious attack took place in August 2009 when one of its fighters, who claimed to have abandoned violent jihad, returned from Yemen to Saudi Arabia and ignited a bomb that was reportedly lodged in his rectum when meeting with Saudi deputy minister of interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Such attacks will also continue to target foreign interests. The May 2003 attack in which three suicide squads detonated their car bombs in a Western residential compound in Riyadh, killing 35 individuals, is regarded as one of al-Qaeda’s most successful operations .

Another blow came in December 2004, when militants attacked the US consulate in Jeddah, resulting in the death of five locals. Despite the Saudi government’s visible success at combating al-Qaeda in the kingdom, AQAP’s determination to launch cross-border attacks from Yemen means that security measures protecting foreign interests in the kingdom and broader region must remain robust.

AQAP’s broader reach

The risk of successful attacks occurring in the region at the hands of AQAP is further heightened by the solidification of ties and increased level of support between al-Qaeda’s branches and affiliates in East Africa and the Gulf. In early January 2010, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansour, a senior figure of Somalia’s radical Islamist al-Shabaab group announced: “We tell our Muslim brothers in Yemen that we will cross the water between us and reach your place to assist you fight the enemy of Allah.” One month later, in February 2010, al-Shabaab confirmed for the first time that its fighters are aligned with al-Qaeda’s global militant campaign.

In the absence of sufficiently robust international long-term support to the Yemini government, Yemen is also likely to continue serving as a staging post from which to launch attacks beyond the Middle East. Whether through individuals trained in Yemen, as was the case with Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or through individuals that have been radicalised from afar, AQAP will endeavour to target Western interests abroad.

The latter strategy is proving to be particularly effective, as reflected in the November 2009 attack by radicalised military psychiatrist Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, killing 13 people. US government sources have confirmed that Hasan made contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American Muslim cleric of Yemini descent at a mosque in suburban Virginia.

Yemen is therefore likely to remain a key battleground in the fight against international terrorism in the years to come. This derives, in no small part, from the fact that Yemen may not become a more stable country even with external assistance and aid. Nor will such stability necessarily come about with concerted efforts by the government to establish stronger and more transparent institutions through which to govern.

Developing a system of transparent governance — as requested by the international community as a precondition for aid and assistance — not only risks unravelling President Saleh’s patronage network but will also take time. As such, efforts to salvage Yemen from its multiple crises could take decades – a fact that AQAP is all too aware of and will continue to exploit.

Anthony Skinner is a Principal Analyst at global risks specialist, Maplecroft