Small Wars Journal

Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula: MOs & Deductions

Fri, 08/19/2011 - 8:03am

Executive Summary

There has been extensive discussion of and assertions about al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), some of it deliberately inaccurate, some misreported, much sensationalised. The then Director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) Michael Leitner is often quoted as saying: “AQAP is now the greatest single terrorist threat to the United States.” This is derived from his public testimony to the Committee on Homeland Security in which he stated "I actually consider al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with Awlaki as a leader within that organization, probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland."  Not only has Dir Leitner’s “risk” become “threat”, but the selective quotation omits both his previous comparative remarks (that AQ Prime in AFPAK have been so suppressed by UAV attacks that they are unable to mount coherent attacks), and also his reticence to rank AQAP as more or less of a threat than AQ Prime. Nor do the reports note that AQAP itself has not increased in capability or intent; it owes its new ranking to the diminished capability of AQ Prime.

As a result of this careless reporting, AQAP’s Capability and Intent (which together comprise the Threat it represents) have been little addressed - at least in the public discourse - and less understood. This paper examines AQAP’s low intensity operations in Yemen, analyses AQAP tactics, from that identifies an operational structure (and operating divisions), its various Intents and deduces its key weaknesses.

  • Multiple concurrent uprisings in Yemen are ideologically unconnected
  • AQAP’s kinetic capability against the West has been over-emphasised
  • AQAP appears to be geographically and operationally divided into 3 groups:
  • Key threat is AQAP’s inspiration to disenchanted Muslims in the West
  • AQAP’s key weakness is alienating the tribes among whom they live
  • AQAP appear to have limited funding, and conduct robberies to raise cash


About the Author(s)

James Spencer is a retired infantry commander who specialised in low intensity conflict. He is a strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.


Robert C. Jones

Sun, 08/21/2011 - 8:17pm

In reply to by Bill M.


As you describe Awlaki it is a crimianl problem and needs to be resolved in that context. That does not mean warrants, and trials, and lawyers per se; but it does not mean massive military spin ups either.

As to the UW aspect of AQAP; it is not just Yemeni citizens radicalized by their government working with AQ there, but nationalist insurgents radicalized by their own governments from all over the region. A big chunk of the problem in Yemen is not a Yemen problem. I just think we need to step back and reframe the context of how we look at this problem. By over engaging it and by mis-categorizing major aspects of it we actually make the risk of major attacks on the UW more likely than less so as we will have validated the AQ spin that we are the obstacle to these disparate groups attaining better governnace in their respective homelands.

I hate it when we do AQ's job for them, and when we exaggerate and miscategorize the threat we do just that.

SWJ Ed, I would argue the article in its own respect was a spin piece. It was an effort to deflate the importance of Awlaki. I agreed with 95% of the article, but his dismisal of Awlaki's impact in my view was off target.


I think we need to separate the internal issues in Yemen from the threat that Awlaki poses to the U.S. and the West in general. While related, from a national security standpoint they are two separate issues (two issues that we conflated once again, because well because that is what we do). Yemen is a perfect example for your argument that it is the government that radicalizes the people, and as Peter superbly presented there are a number of resistance groups in Yemen who are tired of their government, some are affilitated with AQ, but they're probably not the biggest threat to the current regime.

I don't disagree with your position that Awlaki threatens, but is not a threat to the U.S. if you mean that Awlaki will never be an existential threat; however, if the Christmas Airline bombing attempt over Detroit was successful, if the Time Square car bomb was successful, and of course MAJ Hasan's attack in Texas was successful, then I believe our government has a duty to eliminate this threats to its citizens. It is a real threat to U.S. citizens, and it is a real threat to other English speaking countries such as England, Austrail and NZ. The populations of these Western countries are not radicalized by their governments, rather individuals for religious reasons are radicalized by Awlaki. I guess you can call it UW, but it seems to fall more under criminal brain washing similiar to David Karesh is Waco. My point is not to debate terminology, but simply point out that Awlaki is real threat to U.S. citizens. That sure as hell doesn't mean we need to meddle endlessly in Yemen's internal affairs, rather focus on a find, fix and finish strategy in this case and be done with it. I think we made it more complicated than it needs to be by partnering with the devil (the Gov of Yemen). That said, I am not an expert on Yemen, and there may be good reasons for the decisions we made in that regard.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 08/21/2011 - 10:45am

I heartily concur that the current focus on AQAP shaped by our intel-driven perspective is misguided. There is a lot of great information in this paper, but like Bill Moore, I too (for different reasons) think the real issue is not made.

First; we have to step away from "terrorist" labels that conflate problems under a single tactical banner and recognize that AQ is a non-state actor that can operate from any of a thousand places to conduct their networked approach to unconventional warfare.

Second; we must recognize that UW, those efforts to incite and focus the insurgent energy of another state's populace for one's own purposes, cannot be "created" by ideology, but only works where those nationalist perceptions of discontent are already well established.

Third; we must distinguish much more clearly between those few who serve AQ for AQ's purposes from the many who join with AQ in an effort to advance their own nationalist causes at home. Many travel to Yemen for the sanctuary found in the terrain, found in populaces with similar grievances; found in having a sovereign border between one's self and the national security forces one has fled from; and found in the support of AQ.

Fourth; while the problem does indeed grow and flourish on Yemen's soil, the roots run deep back to the powerful insurgent conditions of a dozen states across the region. These roots and the plant itself are well watered and fertilized by those nationalist policies and by the foreign policies of those states who intervene in the region as well.

Any effort to deal with AQAP but look at this picture in a much clearer way that we do currently and take a much more holistic, and indirect approach to the roots of the problem; while at the same time taking a more realistic perspective on the symptoms we see manifest in Yemen. The symptoms "threaten" the West, but they are not a "threat" to the West. Similarly to overly focus on attacking the symptoms will probably drive the roots deeper, and add rich water and fertilizer to the larger problem.

I echo Peter's 'bravo'. For someone (me) who does not possess an intimate knowledge of ‘ground truth’ and of the ‘players' card’ in Yemen I very much appreciate this article that spells out the same. I’m looking forward to James Spencer’s possible / potential book that would include this piece as a chapter. No ‘spin’ and non-‘PC’ analysis is rare and cherished. BZ on this article.

I think this article is well researched and informative, but I think Mr. Spencer may have missed the mark with his conclusion. The author sttes correctly that "Michael Leitner is often quoted as saying: 'AQAP is now the greatest single terrorist threat to the United States'," and then sets out to disprove that by largely focusing on AQAP activities in Yemen.

Mr. Leitner's comments reflected his and many others' beliefs that AQAP, specifically Awlaki is a serious threat to the homeland. Awlaki inspired MAJ Hasan to conduct his attack in Texas, and inspired others to act (mostly unsuccessful) in England, Australia, etc. Awlaki isn't a single mastermind, he has an organization that supports and protects him, and I tend to agree with Mr. Leitner's comments that he is probably the most dangerous/active Islamist terrorist threat against the U.S. due to his beliefs, his unique persuasion skills with an English speaking audience and demonstrated effectiveness.

The author doesn't dismiss Awlaki as a threat, but on page 22 he states it is unlikely a Muslim will find his publication Insprie by chance, but is already radicalized by treatment from his/her host country. I think this misrepresents a couple of points. First, I'm not aware of any case where the online magazine Inspire has prompted a radical to commit a terrorist act. However, I am aware of Awlaki's ability through his online sermons and interaction via e-mail to radicalize and provide individuals with the will to act such as MAJ Hasan. It wasn't simply reading an article, or hearing one sermon, but a process over time that Awlaqi facilitated.

I don't dismiss the author's claim that we also have to do a better job of integrating Muslims into the West, but would also argue we do pretty good with that in the U.S.. It is also important to note, that those who have acted were not isolated, but actually successful (they had families, good paying jobs, a life many non-muslims would envy, so it wasn't a sense of being isolated from their host nation that caused them to act). As for rebutting their ideas and rejecting their claims I think we have been doing that for years. It is one of those acts that briefs well, seems to make sense, but when you put in practice and it doesn't work you're then left wondering why, while they continue to go on killing.

He then argues that even if we kill Awlaki there will be others as though that should lessen the importance of killing him. I guess the same argument could be made that there will be other serial killers, so instead of trying to find the one killing now, we should invest more time in the psychological health of our nation to "maybe" avoid these incidents in the future.

The threat that Awlaki presents isn't overly hyped, it is actually quite real to the homeland, on the other hand the author did a great job breaking down into various groups in Yemen, but that has little to do with the threat Awlak presents to the West, as the old saying goes, that is apples and oranges. I don't think Awlaki is a threat that should cause any of us to lose sleep at night, but it definitely needs to be addressed.

Peter J. Munson

Fri, 08/19/2011 - 11:26am

Bravo. We need more voices of reason in this debate as the sensationalism sells and it is skewing our national strategy and divestment of resources on far-flung and relatively limited risks/threats.