AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has suffered major setbacks since a new government offensive began in April. It’s not the end for AQAP, but the group is now a lot less of an international threat than it was in early 2013. By government count over 500 Islamic terrorists have been killed and over a 50 arrested since April. At least 40 soldiers and police have also been killed as well as several dozen pro-government tribesmen. In addition to losing their last few major bases and several hundred armed members they have also lost the support of most of the southern tribes that have provided sanctuary, new recruits and much else. The tribesmen have found AQAP to be a costly ally. The constant presence of soldiers and the growing use of American UAVs over the few years has disrupted life for the tribes and been nothing but trouble. During the latest offensive the usual AQAP tribal allies were noticeably absent.
Traditionally the tribal leaders controlled the rural tribal territories. Police, soldiers or government officials entered only with permission. Forcing your way in meant you were suddenly at war with several thousand armed, angry and unpredictable tribesmen who had, as far as they were concerned, a license to kill. For a long time this gave AQAP men lots of protection, but then came the American UAVs and more aggressive Yemeni police and soldiers. As a result AQAP has had far more defeats than victories since 2012. Worse, the growing number of foreign AQAP members are often insensitive to Yemeni tribal customs and dangerous to be around (because of the threat of army or UAV attack.) Much of what the UAVs do is to simply report the location of AQAP men, which is often followed by an army raid. The tribes frequently get caught in the middle and suffer casualties and economic losses.
So the recent offensive not only cost AQAP its last few bases in Shabwa and Abyan provinces but also most of the support it had from the local tribes. The tribal leaders have made deals with the government to be “neutral” in the ongoing battle between the government and AQAP. The Islamic terrorists of AQAP are looking for a new home and having a hard time of it.
A major reason for the April offensive was intelligence obtained by the Saudis and Americans indicating that many Saudi, Iraqi and Yemeni Islamic terrorists fighting in Syria had agreed to move to Yemen and plot a major operation against Saudi Arabia. After all AQAP was created to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, even though Saudi Arabia has since 2004 proved too hostile an environment for Islamic terrorists to operate in.
AQAP was formed in 2009 after the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part time members at its peak) fled to Yemen and merged with the Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Growing unrest in Yemen (against the long-standing Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and by 2011 take over several towns in southern Yemen. Then the new post-Saleh government launched a counteroffensive in 2012 and AQAP got hurt very badly. That offensive continued, along with the growing use of American UAVs in Yemen. The April 2014 offensive succeeded in capturing all the new bases AQAP had established in remote mountain areas after their 2012 defeat. While the al Qaeda situation is desperate in Yemen, AQAP is still al Qaeda’s most capable branch and the only one that has shown any ability to support attacks (few successful so far) in the West. Now that capability is in doubt, for a while at least. All this has been good news for Saudi Arabia which has always been the primary foreign target for AQAP attacks but now is seeing that threat diminished, for a while at least.