The first of May 2016 marks five years of the death of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, however the network that he founded is far from dead despite suffering a series of setbacks.
While al-Qaeda has been replaced as the preeminent global jihadist power by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which has held on to territory in Syria and Iraq and has a foothold in Libya, experts maintain that al-Qaeda nonetheless remains a potent force and dangerous threat. Attacks, such as the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, France, and a string of shootings in West Africa over the last several months have shown that al-Qaeda continues to maintain the capabilities to carry out large-scale attacks. Furthermore, in Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda militants have taken advantage of the continued chaos to take control of significant territory, in some instances presenting themselves as an alternative to the brutality of IS rule.
When United States Special Forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, the militant group that he had founded in the late 1980s had been baldy damaged as many of its militants and leaders had either been killed or captured during the US’ “War on Terror.” Dissention grew within the jihadist ranks as al-Qaeda’s new chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, struggled to replace bin Laden. One of the militant group’s branches, originally al-Qaeda in Iraq, would later break away to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). After successfully capturing parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the group declared an Islamic “caliphate” in areas under its control, and would later call itself the Islamic State. Since then, IS has eclipsed its former partner, and many other global militant groups. It has drawn thousands of jihadists, both local and foreigners, to its cause and has claimed responsibility for attacks in Brussels, Paris, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabi and on a Russian airliner over Egypt – All of which have left hundreds dead. It continues to threaten European states with attacks such as those that were carried out in Paris and in Brussels. IS’ self-declared “emir” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also won pledges of allegiance from extremist groups across the Middle East and in Africa. Powerful IS affiliates operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in Libya have carried out a string of deadly attacks, with growing international concerns that the jihadist group is spreading from the Middle East into Africa and beyond. Experts have noted that IS has been especially effective at using new technology to surpass al-Qaeda, which has been less tech-savvy. According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Paris-based expert on Islam and jihadist groups, “al-Qaeda propaganda has become invisible on social networks thanks to the media war machine that Daesh (IS) has managed to successfully create,” adding, “al-Qaeda has lost everywhere to Daesh, except in the Sahel” desert region of northern Africa.
Other experts however, such as William McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington, note that while al-Qaeda has lost some ground to IS, the organization has recovered, noting that “al-Qaeda has a strong showing in Syria and in Yemen.” In Syria, the group’s local affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, is one of the strongest forces that is fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The group also holds large parts of the northern province of Idlib. Meanwhile in Yemen, the local branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has seized significant territory in the south and southeastern regions of the country as the Yemen government struggles against Iran-backed Shi’ite insurgents who have taken control of the capital city Sanaa and other areas of the country. AQAP did however suffer a significant setback in late April 2016 when Yemeni troops recaptured the key port city of Mukalla, which it had occupied for more than a year. McCants notes that despite this loss, AQAP remains the key jihadist force in Yemen as it has thousands of members compared with only several hundred who are affiliated with IS. AQAP, which is considered by Washington to be al-Qaeda’ most well-established and dangerous branch, has also claimed responsibility for one of the group’s most important attacks abroad in recent years. In January 2015, gunmen stormed the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. That assault, which was claimed by AQAP, killed 12 people.
Since November 2015, Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Sahel region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has carried out a string of deadly assaults on hotels and restaurants in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, which have left dozens dead, including many foreigners. In March, New York-based intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group disclosed that the attacks in West Africa “have reasserted the regional presence of AQIM and shown its expanding reach…AQIM has used the attacks to challenge the influence of the Islamic State, to demonstrate and build its local support and to show that it is united after earlier damaging divisions.”
The International Crisis Group notes that while IS has reshaped the jihadist landscape, al-Qaeda “has evolved,” noting that its branches in North Africa, Somalia, Syria and Yemen “remain potent, some stronger than ever.” The United States also continues to see al-Qaeda as a major threat, as has been exemplified in Yemen, where the US is pursuing a vigorous drone war against the group. The strikes have killed many senior operatives, including al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Nasir al-Quhayshi in June 2015. In March, a US strike on an AQAP training camp in Yemen killed at least 71 recruits. In Somalia, the US has also carried out a string of drone strikes against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is trying to topple the western-backed government in the capital Mogadishu.
12 February– Early on Wednesday after announcing their official takeover of the country, Shiite Houthi rebels attacked several anti-Houthi demonstrations. Later in the day, thousands of Houthi supporters marched through the capital shouting “Death to America, Death to Israel.” Amid the escalating violence, the US, British and French embassies have closed. The French and British embassies have encouraged all nationals to leave the country immediately. The US State Department currently has no plans to conduct a government-sponsored evacuation, but they have urged US citizens to maintain extreme caution amid an ongoing risk of kidnapping.
The Houthis captured large parts of Sanaa in September, however the embassies remained open. The closures today signal that the security situation has deteriorated significantly and is unlikely to change. Some analysts have indicated that Yemen is likely to slide into civil war.
Following the departure of American staff, Houthi rebels seized over 25 US Embassy vehicles in Sanaa. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said that although several vehicles were left behind, security forces destroyed heavier weapons before departing the US embassy for a commercial flight out of Yemen. In addition, embassy staff destroyed files and documents. Conflicting reports have emerged that the militiamen harassed US diplomatic personnel and confiscated their vehicles and side arms at the airport.
A small contingency of US military personnel that was not assigned to the embassy remain behind. The closure will not impact counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The branch is considered the most dangerous and active in the AQ network.
Yemen has been in crisis for months. Last week, fighters led by Abdel-Malek al-Houthi dissolved parliament and claimed formal control of the government. Weeks earlier, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned and has reportedly since been under house arrest. Al-Houthi has repeatedly warned against foreign intervention, saying, “We will not accept pressures. They are of no use. Whoever harms the interest of this country could see that their interests in this country are also harmed.”
About the Houthis
The Houthis stem from a minority branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism (Zaydism). Zaidis comprise approximately a third of Yemen’s population, and ruled north Yemen for nearly a millennia until 1962, when a coup d’état carried out by Abdullah as-Sallal, successfully dethroned Imam Muhammad al-Badr, who was the newly crowned king of Yemen. Sallal and declared Yemen a republic and became its first president.
North and South Yemen unified in 1990 under its first president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Fearing a threat to their religious and cultural traditions, a portion of the Zaidis formed a rebel group known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God). The group were led by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a former member of the Yemeni parliament for the Al-Haqq Islamic party between 1993 and 1997. The rebels sought to win greater autonomy for the Saada province. Houthi led the first uprising in June of 2004, but was found and killed by Yemeni security forces in September of that year. After Hussein’s passing, his family took up the mantle, and the Houthis took on the name of their leader. The Houthis conducted five further rebellions until a ceasefire agreement was signed with the Yemeni government in 2010. During the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthis joined the protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. When Saleh stepped down in 2012, the Houthis quickly used the power vacuum to expand control over the Saadi province, and neighbouring Amran province.
The Houthis claim that the Yemeni people were dissatisfied and under-represented within the government, which they feel is dominated by members of the old regime.
Critics say the Houthis are a proxy for Shia dominated Iran, which the rebels and Iran deny. Former president Saleh has been accused by the US of backing the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa “to not only delegitimize the central government, but also create enough instability to stage a coup”. In November, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on him and two senior Houthi leaders. The UN said the leaders were threatening Yemen’s peace and stability and obstructing the political process.
On Monday, France mobilized 10,000 troops to boost security across the country in the wake of last week’s deadly attacks. The increased security comes as more information on the attackers and their links to terrorist organizations surfaces. Questions are mounting as to how the attackers slipped through the intelligence services’ net. French authorities are now carrying out an investigation into last week’s attacks.
Security Boosted Across France
France on Monday announced an unprecedented deployment of thousands of troops and police in order to boost security at “sensitive” sites across the country. At an emergency security meeting, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced “we have decided…to mobilize 10,000 men to protect sensitive sites in the whole country from tomorrow (Tuesday) evening,” adding “this is the first time that our troops have been mobilized to such an extent on our soil.” Close to 5,000 police officers will also be deployed to guard 700 Jewish schools as well as places of worship. France’s alert level on Monday remained at its highest possible as French officials sought security answers.
The increased security presence comes as a French police source reported Saturday that law enforcement officers across France have been told to erase their social media presence and to carry their weapons at all times because terror sleeper cells have been activated over the last 24 hours in the country. According to the source, Amedy Coulibaly, a suspect killed Friday during the deadly hostage siege at a kosher market, had reportedly made several phone calls regarding the targeting of police officers in France. Saturdays’ development was just one of several as France begins to investigate a possible major intelligence failure.
Investigations into Intelligence Failures
France on Monday turned its attention to sealing security holes that have been blamed for failing to prevent the deadliest terrorist attack on the country in half a century. Last week’s attacks were a major intelligence failure, but they have also demonstrated how this new style of terrorism is proving to be a challenge for even the best intelligence agencies.
President Francois Hollande will chair a crisis meeting with cabinet ministers on Monday in order to discuss security measures after the shootings raised questions about how the attackers were able to slip from the radar of French intelligence services. Reports surfaced Saturday that brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi had been under watch by French officials, however that several despite red flags, authorities there lost interest in them. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has admitted that there were “clear failings” after it emerged that brothers Said, 34, and Cherif Kouachi, 32, had been on a US terror watch list “for years. Both brothers, as well as Amedy Coulibaly, 32, had a history of extremism and were known to French intelligence.
Said was known to have travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received weapons training from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). French authorities had placed him under surveillance in November 2011 however they terminated this surveillance in June 2014 when French security services deemed him no longer dangerous. According to a senior Yemeni national security official, Said Kouachi entered Yemen multiple times with an officially issued visa. According to the official, “Said was not being watched during the duration of his stay in Yemen because he was not on the watch list,” adding that at the time, Yemen’s Western allies had not raised concerns about him. His brother Cherif was also a known jihadist who was convicted in 2008 of being involved in a network sending fighters to Iraq. While French intelligence officials believe that there is a strong possibility that Cherif also travelled to Yemen for a short trip in 2011, separately from his brother, surveillance of Cherif was terminated at the end of 2013 when his phone calls suggested that he had disengaged with violent extremism and was instead focused on counterfeiting clothing and shoes. Meanwhile Amedy Coulibaly was a repeat criminal offender who had been convicted for extremist Islamist activity. French prosecutors have indicated that Coulibaly, who killed four people at a kosher market on Friday, was also involved in the shooting of a jogger near Paris on Wednesday, the day of the attack on a magazine that kicked off the terror spree. Prosecutors have indicated that they have linked shell cases found in the eastern Paris town of Fontenay-aux-Roses, where the jogger was shot and severely wounded, to a Tokarev gun that Coulibaly carried at the kosher market on Friday.
News that all three suspects were known to French intelligence also came as a video circulated on the Internet on Sunday depicting a man appearing to be Coulibaly pledging allegiance to Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-baghdadi. In the video, Coulibaly, who appears in front of a small Islamic State flag, indicated that he synchronized his actions with the Kouachi brothers. In the video, he is seen exercising outdoors near a brick building, followed by shots of automatic weapons, pistols and ammunition laid out on a wooden floor. Coulibaly also describes the Charlie Hebdo attackers as his “brothers” and states that he gave them money to finish purchasing supplies. Sources have indicated that Islamic State is responsible for releasing the video, which adds further evidence of a possible connection between the terrorist attacks and the radical terrorist group that has taken over large areas of land in Syria and Iraq. Coulibaly’s mother and sisters have condemned his actions, stating, “we hope there will not be any confusion between these odious acts and the Muslim religion.”
US on Alert
On Monday, the New York City Police Department along with other law enforcement personnel responded to a threat from ISIS after someone re-released a September 2014 message that tells followers to “rise up and kill intelligence offices, police offices, soldiers and civilians.” Officials in the US however have noted that they are currently not aware of any specific threats to the US.
Also on Monday, Turkey’s state-run Anatolian News Agency citied Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stating that the wanted partner of one of the gunmen behind the terror attack in France, was in Turkey five days before the killings, adding that she crossed the border into Syria on 8 January.
In the wake of the two hostage crises on Friday, French authorities launched a search for 26-year-old Hayat Boumeddiene after French anti-terrorist police killed her partner Amedy Coulibaly. On its website, Anatolian cited Turkey’s Foreign Minister as stating in an interview that she had arrived in Istanbul from Madrid on 2 January. According to Cavusoglu, “there is footage (of her) at the airport. Later on, she stayed at a hotel with another person and crossed into Syria on January 8. We can tell that based on telephone records.” Cavusoglu stated that the 26-year-old, who married Coulibaly in an Islamic ceremony, stayed at a hotel in Kadikoy in Istanbul and was accompanied by another person. She then moved onto the south-eastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa and then to Syria however Turkish authorities have not clarified whether she travelled to Syria on her own. Contrary to earlier speculation that she had been involved in the Paris killings, those dates would effectively put Boumeddiene in Turkey before the attacks in Paris, leaving for Syria while the attackers were still on the loose. Cavusoglu indicated that as soon as Turkey had determined the whereabouts of Boumeddiene, it passed the information to French authorities. Interior Minister Efkan Ala has indicated that Turkey received no request to deny access to Boumeddiene, stating “the entry of individuals to Turkey could be blocked based on information from the originating countries saying this person’s entry could be problematic.” Sources have indicated that Turkey did not arrest Boumeddiene because of a lack of timely intelligence from France. While western countries have long accused Turkey of not doing enough to stem the flow of jihadists who are seeking to join Islamic State fighters in neighbouring Syria, Ankara has insisted that it has now stepped up frontier security, noting that the West also has a responsibility to share intelligence.
31 December – A suicide bomber killed over 30 people when he detonated himself at a cultural centre where students were celebrating the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. At least 48 people were also injured, including many women and children and women. Medics and residents put Wednesday’s death toll at 33, saying that 20 bodies were transferred to al-Thawra hospital and 13 others were taken to another hospital. A local resident says that the death toll is likely to rise. The director general of the Ibb governorate where the blast occurred was among the dead. The governor, who was reported to have been wounded, has escaped unharmed. A second explosion was later reported outside al-Thawra Hospital. Authorities later said that security forces had been firing in the air to disperse residents who had gathered in front of the hospital.
No one claimed responsibility for attack, but it is similar in fashion to those conducted by terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has a heavy presence in Yemen. AQAP regards Shi’ites, the sect of Islam to which the Houthis belong, as heretics. The celebration, in the city of Ibb, was organized by the Houthis, the group that controls most of Yemen.
In a message of condolences to the victims’ families, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi condemned “the terrorist and criminal” attack and instructed the government to ensure the wounded receive full medical attention.
Yesterday, unidentified gunmen killed army officer in south Yemen Tuesday, in the latest attack on military personnel. Captain Shaeq Mohammed Shaeq was shot with an assault rifle by gunmen on a motorcycle in Aden’s al-Qahera neighbourhood. Again, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack; however it is consistent with a series of AQAP attacks on military personnel in recent weeks.
On Monday, two soldiers were killed and 11 wounded in a failed attempt to assassinate the commander of the First Military Region, General Abdul Rahman al-Hulaili, in southeastern Hadramawt province. AQAP claimed the attack, in which assailants detonated explosives planted on the roadside and opened fire as the general’s convoy passed.
In a separate attack on Monday in central Baida city, two gunmen on a motorbike shot dead intelligence officer Nasser al-Wahishi. On Sunday, a similar bombing targeted the commander of the 31st Armored Battalion, General Farej al-Atiqi, in the southern city of Aden. Atiqi escaped the bomb blast unscathed, but his driver was killed and two other bodyguards were wounded. A device that had been hidden in his car was detonated by remote control, army officials said.
Tensions have increased in Yemen since the Houthis captured the capital, Sana’a, in September. They have since expanded south and west of the capital. Yemen has been battling al Qaeda strongholds in the region while trying to cope with the Houthi advances. Further, the nation must protect its borders with the world’s top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and protect access to key shipping routes from the Suez Canal to the Gulf. Concerns have arisen that the nation could become a failed state as it struggles to recover following the ousting of veteran autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012.
During the unrest, the military split between forces loyal to President Saleh and those backing General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an Islamist-leaning general who had backed the uprising and went on to become a military adviser to current president Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Corruption, internal splits and competing loyalties in the army began before Saleh’s removal, and are now reaching a critical stage. The rift has weakened the army and contributed to the ease of Houthi acceleration in their mission to “drive out corruption”, and rise of AQAP militants. The current government must also contend with southern separatists who have been calling for a weekly civil disobedience day every Monday to demand independence.
9 December- A double suicide bombing occurred at the First Military Command base in Seyoun, Yemen. Seyoun is the capital city of Yemen’s Hadramout province. Sources indicated that the two attackers attempted to get into the base to detonate vehicle borne IEDs. Soldiers attempted to prevent the vehicles from entering, however one car bomb exploded at the bases gate. The other vehicle detonated inside the compound. Four people were killed and eight were wounded.
The first vehicle was driven Humam al Qarqa al Awlaki, who detonated a Suzuki Vitara filled with half a ton of explosives at the base’s gate around 8:40 a.m. About two minutes later, Nasser bin Ganam al Si’ri detonated a Toyota Hilux carrying 1.25 tons of explosives inside the command headquarters.
A Twitter account affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released a tweet claiming responsibility for the bombings. The tweet also suggested that “tens” of soldiers had been killed and a number of military vehicles were disabled. The group said that their fighters had been monitoring the base; 30 minutes prior to the attacks, a military convoy including high-ranking officials had entered the base.
AQAP released a statement on 9 December which also took credit for the attack of a military truck in al Shihr, about 150 miles south of Seyoun. The attack killed two soldiers and wounded one. AQAP says that soldiers at barracks near the attack fired “randomly” for over an hour after the attack. The group accused the military of damaging a mosque and several “houses of Muslims in the area.” A day earlier, AQAP conducted several bombings in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a targeting the homes of Shiite Houthi leaders. The group conducted three bombings, killing fifteen and wounding 35 Houthis.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for 25 terrorist attacks in Yemen since 1 December, targeting Houthi and military people and facilities. Of the 25, eight attacks, or about 30% were aimed at Yemeni military stationed in the south and east. The remaining 70% have been directed at Houthi leaders or military positions, mainly in Sana’a.
Shiite Houthi fighters have gained traction in their battles against AQAP in recent months. Houthi leaders have captured towns in the South and east that were under the control of AQAP. On 18 November, Houthi fighters pushed AQAP militants out of the south-western strategic town of Rada’a. The town had been under the control of al-Qaeda militants since early 2012. Houthi fighters are now in full control of the strategic town; the group has expressed their preparedness to withdraw from the town when the Yemeni army is able to restore peace and security.
Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has stressed the need for cooperation with the Houthis to restore security to the country. Yemen’s central government has so far failed to confront the terrorist threat. Houthi fighters, however, have intervened to fill the vacuum and driven al-Qaeda militants out of many areas in the country.
In response to the loss strongholds to Shi’ite Houthi fighters, AQAP has accused the Houthis of acting as proxy fighters for the United States and threatened renewed violence against them. In a late-November audio message on jihadist websites, al AQAP’s military commander Qassim al-Raymi said, “You have to know that the mosques of Muslims that you blew up along with their homes and schools, will not just pass unnoticed and you will pay the price dearly.”
AQAP is likely retaliating for military cooperation with the Houthis, and perceived cooperation with the United States. On 4 December, the group released a video featuring a hostage American photo-journalist Luke Somers. The group threatened to kill Somers if the US government did not give in to various demands. On 6 December, during an attempted rescue mission by US security forces in Shabwa, Somers was killed, along with a South African hostage.