The Jihadist galaxy is constantly evolving. The terrorist groups, that in the past seemed defeated, have been able over the years to develop new techniques and maintain or even increase their charm, with small but incisive attacks aimed at demonstrating their existence. With the regional powers that are focusing their attention on other scenarios such as Libya and Syria, in Yemen, al-Qaeda seems to have a free field.
According to a report published by the European Eye on Radicalization, despite recent defeats on the ground, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains one of the main actors in Yemen tormented by the conflict, and one of the main threats for the region and worldwide. In 2015, with all eyes on Daesh’s rise, AQAP was able to plan the Charlie Hebdo massacre in central Paris, the first jihadist terrorist attack on European soil since 2005. A new leadership, ongoing fighting in Yemen, and the fundamental characteristics of AQAP could allow the terrorist organization to launch attacks.
The report recalls that, in February 2020, the White House announced that it had killed AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimi in a fixed-wing drone bombing. Al-Rimi was one of the few remaining Al Qaeda leaders before the attacks on New York on September 11, 2001.
After initial efforts to regroup and rearrange, the new AQAP commander, Khalid bin Umar Batarfi, received the reins of the group.The anti-terrorist campaigns of the United Arab Emirates and the United States have exhausted the fighters of AQAP and the Islamic State (ISIS) in Yemen, through targeted killings and the promotion of mass desertion. In 2016, the UAE also led international efforts to expel AQAP from Al-Mukalla, the largest group-controlled city in Yemen, bringing tribal actors to the Arab coalition’s security structures against the jihadists. Terrorists warned local tribe members to attack them if they cooperate with those militias.
Last year, the United Arab Emirates decided to withdraw most of its men from Yemen. The counter-terrorism mission continued, in particular, with the arrest of Yemeni ISIS leader Muhammad Qanan al-Sayari in June 2019, but the coalition’s mission appeared to be more fragile.
Batarfi and his organization are likely to prove to be a long-term and more dangerous enemy of ISIS. According to the European Eye on Radicalization, AQAP will likely seek to exploit any hesitation in coordination between the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and local armed groups trained in the UAE. It is also likely that AQAP will attempt to recruit more Yemenis for its cause while renewing the organization’s mission against the Al-Saud family.
Another factor in favor of al-Qaeda is the re-intensification of hostilities between the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led Arab coalition, on the one hand, against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, on the other. The provinces of Yemen Al-Jawf, Marib, and Bayda – where AQAP maintains networks and the influence among the tribes – are the areas to keep an eye on for the awakening of AQAP.Furthermore, a Turkey’s greater participation alongside Iran in the Yemeni arena cannot be excluded.
Numerous reports suggest that Ankara is already recruiting Syrian mercenaries to be transferred to Yemen, applying the Libyan model.Finally, the current COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a significant effect on Yemen. It is possible that Batarfi may shift his ambitions, depending on how bad things are going, and take advantage of the instability in Saudi Arabia – or even in the West – caused by the coronavirus to initiate external terrorist operations.