Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a Sunni terrorist organization and Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate based in Yemen.



Brief Summary of the Organization's History.


How does a group organize? Who leads it? How does it finance operations?


How does a group fight? What are its aims and ideologies? What are some of its major attacks?

Major Attacks

What are the group's most famous attacks? What are some key attacks in the group's evolution?


What is the group's relationship with the community? How does it interact with other groups?


What is the group's relationship with other militants over time?

Key Statistics

2009 First Recorded Activity
2009 First Attack
2018 Last Recorded Activity


Send a message to the Mapping Militants team.

How to Cite:

Mapping Militant Organizations. “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” Stanford University. Last modified June 2018.


Brief History

  • Overview
  • Narrative


Formed January 2009
Disbanded Group is active.
First Attack March 15, 2009: AQAP claimed responsibility for killing four South Korean tourists with a suicide bomb in the city of Shibam in southeast Yemen (4 killed, 4 wounded). 
Last Attack January 29, 2018: A suspected AQAP suicide car bomb attack against a "Shabwa Elite Force" checkpoint occured, followed by a small arms fire northeast of Ataq in Shabwa provice (11 killed). 
Updated August 2018


Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a Sunni terrorist organization and Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate based in Yemen.   Emerging from the 2009 merger of the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of Al Qaeda, AQAP has claimed numerous attacks in Yemen and also targets Westerners at home and abroad. The group is known internationally for the “underwear bomber” who attempted to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound airplane in 2009 and for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. In 2014, it created an offshoot organization called Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen in order to rebrand the AQ name with greater attention to domestic issues. In 2015, AQAP seized territory in the southeast of Yemen including the port of Mukalla, which provided a massive financial boon in port taxes and looted funds from the central bank. AQAP is distinguished from other AQ branches as a facilitator, financier, and smuggling nexus for the global AQ network, demonstrating unique competency in media and messaging among the franchises.  Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in an American drone strike in 2011, was one of its best-known publicists.


Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) formed in 2009, when Saudi Arabia pushed AQ’s Saudi branch across the border into Yemen, initiating a merger of the Saudi and Yemeni franchises.[i]The organization traces its roots back to the 1990s, when mujahideen fighters returned from Afghanistan, including both Yemeni and now stateless foreigners whose countries denied them re-entry. Resettling in Yemen, they were granted sanctuary by the ruling Saleh regime. While most former mujahideen integrated into Yemeni society, a small group remained determined to wage violent jihad. Some reportedly collaborated with the regime to fight the Marxist government in Southern Yemen until the country was unified, while others fought for the opposition. Osama bin Laden resettled in Yemen among a group of Afghanistan veterans, training and financing jihadists in the early 1990s, forming Islamic Jihad in Yemen, the predecessor to AQ in Yemen, which lasted from 1990-1994.[ii]

AQAP’s predecessor was Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQY). AQY members bombed the USS Cole in 2000 in addition to other attacks in the early 2000s, but U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts largely incapacitated the group by 2003.[iii]It was not until Qasim al-Raymi and Nasir al-Wuhayshi escaped a high security prison in Sana’a in 2006 that AQY began to regroup and carry out attacks. After continuous Saudi crackdowns, many members of Al Qaeda fled to Yemen and formed AQAP in 2009.[iv] (See AQY profile for more information.)

Wuhayshi, Raymi, and Said Ali al-Shihri announced the formation of AQAP in a video. Al-Shihri is a Saudi national who was released from Guantanamo Bay in November 2007. Raymi and Shihri pledged allegiance to Wuhayshi and suggested that AQAP would also include the Yemen Soldiers Brigade, another AQ franchise in Yemen.[v]Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahirialso acknowledged the merger.[vi]  Four days later the group released a 19-minute video titled: "We Start from Here and We Will Meet at al-Aqsa," outlining their goals and ideology.[vii]

Following the merger, AQAP officially began to launch and claim attacks within and beyond Yemen’s borders. In August 2009, an AQAP suicide bomber attempted but failed to assassinate Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef. AQAP was also accused of training Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane by injecting chemicals into a package of Pentrite explosive in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009. This attack solidified fears that AQAP had become a global threat and prompted the U.S. to increase development aid to Yemen.[viii] On October 29, 2010, AQAP send parcel bombs on cargo planes to a U.S. address, but the plot was foiled.  Nevertheless, the attempt drew more global attention to AQAP and led some analysts to consider it more dangerous than even Al Qaeda’s core headquartered in Pakistan.[ix]Many Yemenis suspected that the government, in spite of its collaboration with the U.S., also maintained ties with AQAP. This alleged relationship could partly explain its resilience.[x]

The group maintained an active media presence that included a bimonthly magazine, Sada al-Malahim (“The Echo of Battles”), tailored to Yemeni audiences.[xi]AQAP also produced English language propaganda aimed at a Western audience through Inspire magazine, a project initiated in 2010 by U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki and Pakistani-American Samir Khan.[xii]. Despite the deaths of Awlaki and Khan in an American drone strike in 2011, the magazine continues to be influential.[xiii]

In 2011, AQAP leaders established an offshoot organization called Ansar al-Shariah Yemen (ASY) in southern Yemen.[xiv]ASY is an admitted rebranding attempt by AQAP leaders to attract more local Yemenis.[xv]The U.S. State Department has listed the name as an alias for AQAP.[xvi]ASY was initially strong, taking over parts of southern Yemen by spring 2011 and holding them for over a year. The group provided services like electricity and water in addition to enforcing Shariah law until an anti-militant government offensive drove it out.[xvii]


Dislodging AQAP from Yemen proved to be more difficult.[xviii]  In 2011 Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, described AQAP as "the most active operational franchise" of Al Qaeda.[xix] Military campaigns against AQAP included drone strikes and efforts by U.S. special operation troops deployed in Yemen but the group continued to grow. 

AQAP claimed responsibility for the January 2015 attack on the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed twelve people.[xx]Brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi conducted the attack, with one brother traveling to Yemen to meet Anwar al-Alwaki (now deceased) in 2011. 

The civil war in Yemen, which erupted in February and March of 2015, provided AQAP room to expand. From its base in the south and southeast, AQAP fought against both the sitting government and the Houthi rebels.[xxi]   In April 2015, AQAP seized an airport and a port on the Gulf of Aden and freed up to 300 of its members from prison. The withdrawal of American intelligence officers from the country in April 2015 due to security concerns temporarily reduced the number of American drone strikes that had previously been relatively effective in limiting the group’s movements.[xxii]

The conflict entered a new phase in April 2015, when a Saudi led coalition of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Qatar (until June 2017) initiated military operations targeting the Shia Houthi rebels, worsening humanitarian conditions and contributing to the power vacuum on which AQAP thrives. AQAP has been a primary beneficiary of the civil war in Yemen, capitalizing on the chaos by labeling the Houthi/Saleh forces an Iranian proxy, which allowed AQAP to legitimize its actions as a Sunni front against Iran. Holding territory, even for limited periods, augmented revenue streams from raiding banks and controlling ports while providing indirect access to additional weapons. Territorial gains simultaneously engendered a more pragmatic approach to governance and elevated insurgent aspirations to displace the current government.[xxiii]  

American drone strikes began to increase in 2016, nearly doubling to 44, from 23 the year before, and reached a new peak in 2017 at 131, most of which were directed at AQAP.[xxiv]On January 29, 2017, an American attack on AQAP resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and the loss of an American aircraft along with the deaths of 14 AQAP fighters and a number of civilians.[xxv]   

By the summer of 2018 AQAP had lost about half of the territory it held in 2015 but maintained a wide if geographically dispersed presence, with around 4000 fighters.  The Pentagon still considered it the most lethal AQ affiliate.[xxvi]  


[i]Shae'e, Abdel Ilah Haider. "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Yemen Times, March 20, 2010.

[ii]Koehler-Derrick, Gabriel, ed. “A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen,” Combatting Terrorism Center, Sept. 2011. 18-22. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. CFR Staff. "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula." CFR Backgrounders. The Council on Foreign Relations, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

[iii]“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” Council on Foreign Relations. Aug. 22, 2013.

[iv]“Profile: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” Al Jazeera. May 9, 2012.

[v]Burton, Fred. Stewart, Scott. "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Desperation or New Life?" Stratfor Global Intelligence, January 28, 2009

[vii]“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Desperation or New Life?” Stratfor Global Intelligence, Jan. 28, 2009

[viii]Fromm, Charles. "Yemen: US Poised to Increase Aid," Global Issues, January 6, 2010

[ix]Miller, Greg and Peter Finn. "CIA sees increased threat from al-Qaeda in Yemen," The Washington Post, August 24, 2010. 

[x]Hill, Evan, and Laura Kasinof. "Playing a Double Game in the Fight against AQAP."  Foreign Policy, Jan. 21, 2015.  

[xi]“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Council on Foreign Relations. Aug. 22, 2013.

[xii]“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” Council on Foreign Relations. Aug. 22, 2013.

[xiii]Savage, Charlie. "Court Releases Large Parts of Memo Approving Killing of American in Yemen." The New York Times. June 23, 2014.  

[xiv]Zelin, Aaron. "Know Your Ansar al-Sharia." Foreign Policy, Sept. 12, 2014.

[xv]"Profile: Yemen's Ansar al-Sharia." BBC News. Mar. 17, 2014.

[xvi]U.S. Department of State. "Terrorist Designations of Ansar Al-Sharia as an Alias for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula." Oct. 4, 2012.

[xvii]Zelin, Aaron. "Know Your Ansar al-Sharia." Foreign Policy. Sept. 12, 2014.  

[xviii]Harris, Alistair. "Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Carnegie Papers, May 2010  

[xix]The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Remarks of John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, on Ensuring al-Qa'ida's Demise, June 29, 2011.  

[xx]Shoichet, Catherine, and Josh Levs. "AQAP: Charlie Hebdo Attack Was Years in the Making -" CNN. Jan. 21, 2015.

[xxi]"Yemen Crisis: Who Is Fighting Whom?" BBC News. Mar. 26, 2015.

[xxii]"An Exceptional Franchise." The Economist.  Apr. 23, 2015. Miller, Greg. "Al-Qaeda Group Is Taking Advantage of Yemen Chaos to Rebuild, Officials Say." The Washington Post. Apr. 5, 2015.     

[xxiii]“Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base.” International Crisis Group. Feb. 2, 2017  

[xxiv]Gutowski, Alexandra. “Details Remain Vague After Four More Us Strikes Against AQAP In Yemen.” Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Long War Journal. Nov. 17, 2017; Sudarsan Raghavan, “Still Fighting Al-Qaeda,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2018. 

[xxv]Schmitt, Eric. “U.S. Commando Killed in Yemen in Trump’s First Counterterrorism Operation.” New York Times. Jan. 29, 2017.  

[xxvi]Sudarsan Raghavan, “Still Fighting Al-Qaeda,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2018.  


Organizational Structure

Leadership, Name Changes, Size Estimates, Resources, Geographic Locations

  • Leadership
  • Nasser al-Wuhayshi (2009 to June 2015)
  • Qasim al-Raymi (2009 to Present)
  • Anwar al-Awlaki (2009 to 2011)
  • Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri (2009 to Present, although reported killed August 2018)
  • Nayif Mohammed Saeed al-Qhatani (2009 to April 2010)
  • Said Ali al-Shihri (2009 to September 10, 2012)
  • Khalid Batarfi (April 2015 to present)


This section describes various leaders, their deputies, and other important officials in the militant organization.

Nasser al-Wuhayshi (2009 to June 2015)

Nasser al-Wuhayshi (2009 to June 2015): Wuhayshi, also known as Abu Basir, was the founder and leader of AQAP until his death in 2015.  He also reportedly served as a general manager of AQ. Reports of his death in 2011 were unsubstantiated, but a drone strike in Yemen's Hadramout region, in June 2015 killed Wuhayshi, as confirmed by AQAP official Khaled Batarfi.[i]

[i] "AQAP's Inspire Magazine: Interview with AQAP Leader Nasir al-Wahishi," Flashpoint Partners, July 18, 2010;  Roggio, Bill, and Thomas Joscelyn. "AQAP’s Emir Also Serves as Al Qaeda’s General Manager." Long War Journal. Aug. 6, 2013.;  Ford, Dana. “Top al Qaeda Leader Reported Killed in Yemen.” CNN. June 16, 2015 “Profile: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” BBC News,  


Qasim al-Raymi (2009 to Present)

Raymi, also known as Abu Hurayra, is the current leader of AQAP, after succeeding Wuhayshi following his 2015 death. Formerly the military commander of AQAP, There have been multiple discredited reports of Raymi’s death, most recently in 2011. However, he reappeared in a 2013 video apologizing for a deadly AQAP attack on a hospital in Yemen.[i]

[i]"Five key members of Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP)," Christian Science Monitor, November 2, 2010,; “Al Qaeda: We’re Sorry” CNN. Dec. 22, 2013.; Mullen, Jethro. “Al Qaeda's second in command killed in Yemen strike; successor named.” CNN. June 16, 2015.  


Anwar al-Awlaki (2009 to 2011)

Awlaki, a dual American and Yemeni citizen and the group's chief ideologue, was killed by an American drone strike in Southern Yemen in 2011, setting off a national debate on the legality of killing American citizens without a trial.[i]

[i] "Five key members of Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP)," Christian Science Monitor November 2, 2010,; Martinez, Michael. “U.S. drone killing of American al-Awlaki prompts legal, moral debate” Sep. 30, 2011.  


Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri (2009 to Present, although reported killed August 2018)

Asiri is believed to be responsible for assembling some of the most high-profile AQAP bombs, such as those used in the attempted assassination of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the attempted bombing of an airplane en route to Detroit, both in 2009.[i]

[i] "Profile: Al-Qaeda 'bomb maker' Ibrahim Al-Asiri." BBC News. July 4, 2014.; Morell, Michael.  “Trump’s team just took out one of the most dangerous terrorists since Bin Laden,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2018.  


Nayif Mohammed Saeed al-Qhatani (2009 to April 2010)

Qhatani was a senior leader in AQAP, responsible for establishing AQ cells and training camps in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He is known for serving as a connection between the Yemeni and Saudi branches of AQ before the merger. Qhatani was killed in a shootout with Saudi security forces in April 2010.[i]

[i] Macleod, Hugh. "Senior Yemen al-Qaida leader reported killed in Saudi Arabia," The Guardian, May 15, 2010


Said Ali al-Shihri (2009 to September 10, 2012)

Shihri, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, became AQAP's deputy emir and held that post until he was killed in a military operation in Yemen in September 2012. Shihri was responsible for determining targets, recruiting new members, planning attacks, and assisting in operational support for carrying out attacks.[i]

[i] Five key members of Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP)," Christian Science Monitor November 2, 2010,  


Khalid Batarfi (April 2015 to present)

Batarfi, a former member of AQAP’s shura council, was the top commander for AQAP in Abyan Governate, Yemen. He escaped during an AQAP attack on the Central Prison in al-Mukalla.[i]

[i]"State Department Terrorist Designation of Khalid Batarfi," U.S. Department of State from  


    Name Changes
  • Name Changes
  • Size Estimates
  • Resources
  • Geographic Locations

Name Changes

There are no recorded name changes for this group.

Size Estimates

AQAP is comprised of Yemenis, Saudis, and foreign fighters. As of 2010, roughly 56% of the group was Yemeni, 37% was Saudi, and 7% was otherwise foreign. The group's fighters include veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and international recruits who attended religious schools in Yemen.[i]

  • December 30, 2017: More than 3,000 members of the al-Qaeda affiliate.[ii]
  • July 2017: AQAP is estimated to have as many as 4,000 members.[iii]
  • May 30, 2013: Almost 1,000.[iv]
  • April, 2012: More than 1,000 (CNN).[v]
  • November 8, 2010: 500 (CNN)[vi]
  • October 30, 2010: 600 (CBS News)[vii]
  • August 31, 2010: From 300 to several thousand.[viii]
  • July 1, 2010: 100-300 (Aspen Institute).[ix]  


[i]Batal al-shishani, Murad. "An Assessment of the Anatomy of al-Qaeda in Yemen: Ideological and Social Factors." Jamestown Foundation, March 4, 2010; Whitlock, Craig. "Al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate widens search for recruits and targets," The Washington Post, November 30, 2010

[ii]Schmitt, Eric and Al-Batati, Saeed. “The U.S. Has Pummeled Al Qaeda in Yemen. But the Threat Is Barely Dented.” New York Times. Dec. 30, 2017    

[iii]U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator For Counterterrorism, 

Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, May 30, 2013, “Chapter 6. Foreign Terrorist Organizations”  

[iv]U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator For Counterterrorism, 

Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, May 30, 2013, “Chapter 6. Foreign Terrorist Organizations”  

[v]Cruickshank, Paul. “Brennan on bin Laden raid, and "dangerous" Yemen.” CNN. Apr. 20, 2012.  

[vi]Varisco, Daniel Martin. "Yemen is not a terrorist factory," CNN, November 8, 2010  

[vii]"Yemen: The Next Front Line against Al Qaeda," CBS News, October 30, 2010  

[viii]“Executive Summary: Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aug 31, 2010.

[ix]Gerges, Fawaz A. "The al Qaeda-Yemen connection and the West's policy dilemmas," Aspenia Online, July 1, 2010  



Before Saudi Arabia's crackdown, AQAP received considerable funding from Islamic charities. Although the Saudis clamped down by tightening money transfer rules, AQAP was also funded by cash donations from wealthy individuals, a process that is much harder to track.  AQAP does not require considerable resources to be effective; for example, the October 2010 parcel bomb attempt probably cost less than $500 to engineer and deliver.[i]

AQAP’s funding primarily came from robberies and kidnappings for ransom and, to a lesser degree, from donations from like-minded supporters.  AQAP is said to have extorted up to $20 million in ransom money as per 2013 estimates.[ii]

The civil war in Yemen provided further opportunities. Seizing the port city of Mukalla yielded $60 million looted from the central bank and another $2 million per day from port taxes between 2015 and 2016.

[i]Laessing, Ulf. "Fight vs al Qaeda funding faces tough obstacle: cash," Thomas Reuters Foundation," November 10, 2010

[ii]“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” Jan. 24 2015.; Fanusie, Yaya and Alex Entz, “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Financial Assessment.” Center on Sanctions & Illicit Finance: Foundation for Defense of Democracies. July 2017.;“Al Qaeda group is operating on ransom money from the West,” Los Angeles Times. Oct. 21, 2013.   


Geographic Locations

Disclaimer: This is a partial list of where the militant organization has bases and where it operates. This does not include information on where the group conducts major attacks or has external influences.

AQAP is headquartered in southern and southeastern Yemen.[i]In 1996, after spending time training militants there, Osama bin Laden identified the country as an ideal location to base Al Qaeda, should he be ousted from Afghanistan, citing its tribal society, its mountainous geography, and its armed people.[ii]The strategic maritime location contributes to its core competencies of facilitating, financing, and smuggling, frequently acting as a critical node between AQ and outlying franchises including al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and a variety of groups in Egypt.[iii]

[i]Miller, Greg.  “Al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen exploits chaos to rebuild, officials say.”  The Washington Post, April 5, 2015“

[ii]Koehler-Derrick, Gabriel, ed. “A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen,” Combating Terrorism Center, October 3, 2011.

[iii]Fanusie, Yaya and Alex Entz, “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Financial Assessment.” Center on Sanctions & Illicit Finance: Foundation for Defense of Democracies. July 2017.  



Ideology, Aims, Political Activities, Targets, and Tactics

    Ideology and Goals
  • Ideology and Goals
  • Political Activities
  • Targets and Tactics

Ideology and Goals

AQAP has a global jihadist agenda.  The group seeks to expel foreigners from the Arabian Peninsula and spread jihad to Israel to "liberate Muslim holy sites and brethren in Gaza."[i]  AQAP also condemns Arab leaders who have imposed blockades on Palestine and promises to save imprisoned jihadists in Saudi Arabia.[ii]  AQAP, in conjunction with Al Qaeda, strives to create an Islamic caliphate through the unification of states in the Arabian Peninsula.  According to general Al Qaeda ideology, "Al Qaeda will mobilize four armies that will march from the periphery of the Muslim world to the heart of Palestine: one army from Pakistan and Afghanistan, one from Iraq, one from Yemen, and the last from the Levant.” AQAP asserts that it will form the army that will be sent from Yemen.[iii]As outlined by Osama bin Laden, America and the West are Islam’s main enemies, and Saudi Arabia and Palestine are under "crusader Zionist occupation."AQAP does not consider itself to be a part of the Islamic State, contrary IS claims in 2014.[iv]

AQAP also works to marginalize Shiites, especially the Houthis in Northern Yemen. AQAP accused Houthi insurgents of fighting to impose Shiite religious law in Yemen, which AQAP blames on Iran.[v]

[i]Burton, Fred and Scott Stewart. "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Desperation or New Life?" Stratfor Global Intelligence, January 28, 2009  

[ii]Bakier, Abdul Hameed. "Al-Qaeda Leaders in the Arabian Peninsula Speak Out," The Jamestown Foundation, Janurary 28, 2009  

[iii]Shae'e, Abdel Ilah Haidar. "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Yemen Times, March 30, 2010

[iv]Cruickshank, Paul. "Al Qaeda in Yemen Rebukes ISIS." CNN. N.p., 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.  

[v]Harris, Alistair. "Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Carnegie Papers, May 2010  


Political Activities

AQAP aspires to overthrow the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni regimes and establish an Islamic theocracy. Officially, AQAP refuses to engage with the Yemeni government. However, despite the counterterrorism efforts claimed by former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh who held office from 1990 to 2012, some experts believe that Saleh may have fueled jihadist threats by working with AQAP in order to ensure Western backing for his regime. Further, in 2009 Saleh was accused of recruiting AQAP militants to suppress a southern rebellion movement in return for releasing jihadist prisoners.[i]  

Upon seizing Zinjibar and five other towns across Abyan and Shebwa provinces, from 2011 to 2012, AQAP demonstrated its newly acquired political skill under the guise of Ansar al Sharia (AAS). It provided basic public services and justice under Sharia. The seizure of Mukalla in 2015 reflected growing political savvy, establishing the Hadramout National Council with local residents, socializing, and showing restraint in enforcing strict rules. Even AQ’s characteristic black banner was ordered not to be displayed by Wuhayshi, and when confronted with the potential for a fight, AQAP withdrew to avoid alienating the population. This reflects the gradualist approach AQ has adopted to win the allegiance of the population, in strong contrast with IS doctrine.[ii]

[i]“Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” Council on Foreign Relations. Aug. 22, 2012.;Novak, Jane. "Yemen strikes multifaceted deals with al Qaeda," The Long War Journal, February 11, 2009  

[ii]“Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base.” International Crisis Group. Feb. 2, 2017


Targets and Tactics

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resorts to both conventional and unconventional methods to attack its enemies and recruit members. The group makes use of IEDs, kidnappings, shooting attacks, mail bombs, and bombs on planes. The group has also dissuaded dissenters from rising up against AQAP by assassinating local officials who opposed them. 

AQAP also uses non-violent methods to garner international support and issue threats. Publications such as Inspire, AQAP’s English publication, and the Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim (“The Echo of Battles”) are aimed at expanding AQ’s network and recruiting fighters.In particular, Inspire justifies campaigns of violence against the West and encourages lone wolf attacks by providing how-to manuals, bomb-making instructions, and contact information to enable recruits to connect to the Al Qaeda network.[i]AQAP’s leadership states that it is not necessary to carry out large-scale 9/11 attacks that require sophisticated planning and tactics. Instead, the group promotes conducting smaller operations, where less is at stake. According to them, if several attacks succeed, the cumulative effect will bring down the U.S. confidence in security and have negative impacts on its economy.[ii]

In the region, AQAP targets foreigners and security forces as part of their scheme to overthrow Saudi and Yemeni governments and establish an Islamic caliphate. Abroad, the group also targets the United States, as seen with the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight in 2009. AQAP views Israel as one of its main enemies in the region and also targets U.S. allies in Europe. For example, AQAP claimed responsibility for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack.[iii]  The group also has attacked British diplomats in Yemen, asserting that their attacks are justified because Britain is "the main ally of America in the war against Islam" and "gave the Jews control over the land of Palestine.[iv]

[i]Zimmerman, Katherine. "Expanding the Campaign of Violence: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's English-Language Magazine." Critical Threats, July 13, 2010

[ii]Al Qaida Magazine Details Parcel Bomb Attempt," NPR News, November 22, 2010  

[iii]Shoichet, Catherine. “Al Qaeda branch claims Charlie Hebdo attack was years in the making” CNN. Jan. 21. 2015.

[iv]"AQAP Claims Responsibility for Suicide Attack on British Ambassador in Yemen,", May 13, 2010


Major Attacks

First Attacks, Largest Attacks, Notable Attacks

Major Attacks

Disclaimer: These are some selected major attacks in the militant organization's history. It is not a comprehensive listing, but captures some of the most famous attacks or turning points during the campaign.

  1. March 15, 2009: AQAP claimed responsibility for killing four South Korean tourists with a suicide bomb in the city of Shibam, southeast Yemen. (4 killed, 4 wounded).[i]
  2. March 18, 2009: AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide bomber who targeted a South Korean delegation traveling to the airport in Sana'a to investigate the Shibam terrorist attack. The bomber failed to cause harm to the delegates. (1 killed, 1 wounded).[ii]
  3. June 12, 2009: AQAP abducted nine foreigners (four German adults, three German children, a British man and a South Korean woman) outside the city of Saada. Three were executed, the children were released, and the whereabouts of the others are unknown. (3+ killed).[iii]
  4. August 27, 2009: AQAP attempted to assassinate Saudi Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs Prince Mohammed bin Nayef through a suicide bombing. Nayef was only slightly wounded, and the bomber died in the blast (1 killed, 1 wounded).[iv]
  5. December 25, 2009: AQAP was accused of training Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, “the underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane by injecting chemicals into a package of penrite explosive in his underwear mid-flight (0 killed, 0 wounded).[v]
  6. April 26, 2010: An AQAP suicide bomber detonated in front of the convoy of the British Ambassador to Yemen, Timothy Torlot (1 killed, 3 wounded).[vi]
  7. October 2010: AQAP militants shot two rocket propelled grenades at the car carrying Fiona Gibb, Britain's second highest ranking diplomat in Yemen (0 killed, 3 wounded).[vii]
  8. October 29, 2010: AQAP hid bombs in packages shipped from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago. The bombs were discovered aboard cargo planes in Dubai and London. (0 killed, 0 wounded).[viii]
  9. February 25, 2012: AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that targeted Republican Guard troops in Bayda (26 killed, unknown wounded).[ix]
  10. May 21, 2012: A suicide bombing attack targeted a military parade in Sana’a (96 killed, 300 wounded).[x]
  11. December 5, 2013: An attack targeted a hospital at the Defense Ministry complex. No group claimed the attack initially, but AQAP issued an apology for the attack shortly after. (56 killed, unknown wounded) [xi]
  12. January 6, 2014: AQAP attacked military bases in central Yemen in the town of Rada'a in Baydah province. (10 killed, 0 wounded)[xii]
  13. October 16, 2014: A car bomb targeted Houthi areas in Yemen. (15 killed, 12 wounded)[xiii]
  14. January 7, 2015: Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, allegedly affiliated with and trained in Yemen by AQAP, attacked French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris (12 killed, 0 wounded).[xiv]
  15. April 2, 2015: AQAP attacked multiple government facilities in Mukalla, freeing 300 prisoners, including Khalid al-Batarfi, former AQAP emir of Abyan province.[xv]  
  16. April 16, 2015: AQAP seized the Riyan Airport near the city of Mukalla in southern Yemen.[xvi]
  17. May 11, 2016:  AQAP claimed a VBIED attack in northern Hadramawt province that wounded general Abdul-Rahman al-halili, commander of Yemen’s first military region.[xvii]
  18. August 19, 2016: AQAP claimed attack that kills three Houthi officials in Sanaa.[xviii]  
  19. January 29, 2018: A suspected AQAP suicide car bomb attack against a “Shabwa Elite Force” checkpoint followed by small arms fire northeast of Ataq in Shabwa province (11 killed).[xix]

[ii]Brian O’Neill, “AQAP a Rising Threat in Yemen,” CTC Sentinel, April 2009, Volume 2, Issue 4  

[iii]Allen Hall, “Kidnapped German sisters speak Arabic to each other,” The Telegraph, May 23, 2010  

[iv]Coker, Margaret. "Assassination Attempt Targets Saudi Prince," The Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2009  

[v]"Christmas Day 'bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab charged," Times Online, January 7, 2010  

[vi]British Official Wounded in Yemen Rocket Attack," Alarab Online, June 10, 2010  

[vii]Kasinof, Laura. "Yemen attack underscores increasing Al Qaeda threat," Christian Science Monitor, October 7, 2010  

[viii]Curran, Cody, James Gallagher and Patrick Knapp. "AQAP and Suspected AQAP Attacks in Yemen Tracker 2010," CriticalThreats, November 1, 2010  

[ix]“Days after similar attack, suicide bombing rocks a Yemeni Republican Guard camp.” AlArabiya. Mar. 3, 2012.  

[x]“Al-Qaeda claims bombing that killed nearly 100 Yemeni soldiers.” AlArabiya. May 21, 2012.  

[xii]“AQAP overruns Yemeni army base, seizes armored vehicles” The Long War Journal. Jan. 6, 2014  

[xiii]“AQAP overruns Yemeni army base, seizes armored vehicles” The Long War Journal. Jan. 6, 2014  

[xiv]“Al Qaeda branch claims Charlie Hebdo attack was years in the making.” CNN. Jan. 21, 2015.    

[xv]U.S. Department of State, State Department Terrorist Designation of Khalid Batarfi, January 23, 2018.   

[xvi]Al-Mujahed, Ali, and Hugh Naylor. "Al-Qaeda Seizes Airport in Eastern Yemen." The Washington Post. Apr. 16, 2015.  

[xvii]“Al Qaeda says targeted senior Yemeni army commander: recording,” Reuters World News, May 17, 2016  

[xviii]“Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) report.” Counter Extremism Project.  Dec 1, 2017  

[xix]Mukhashaf, Mohammed and SamiAboudi, "Eleven Dead in Suicide Attack at Yemen Checkpoint." Reuters. Jan. 29, 2018.  



Foreign Designations and Listings, Community Relations, Relations with Other Groups, State Sponsors and External Influences

  • Designated/Listed
  • Community Relations
  • Relationships with Other Groups
  • State Sponsors and External Influences


  • January 19, 2010: The Secretary of State designated AQAP as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.[i]

AQAP's top leaders, Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Said al-Shihri, were also designated under E.O. 13224, as was American-Yemeni recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki. These designations prohibit the supply of material support and weapons to AQAP and include immigration restrictions in an attempt to stop the flow of finances to AQAP. They also give the Department of Justice jurisdiction to prosecute AQAP members.[ii]All three were also listed by the UN on a list of individuals associated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, subjecting them and the organization as a whole to asset freezes, travel bans, and an arms embargo.[iii]


             Table 1: Individuals designated under EO 13224.[iv]

19-Jan-10Nasir al-Wahishi17-Nov-15
19-Jan-10Said Ali al-Shihri26-Nov-14
11-May-10Qasim al-RimiN/A
11-May-10Nayif Bin-Muhammad al-Qahtani27-Jun-13
7-Dec-10Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Al-Quso26-Sep-13
24-Mar-11Ibrahim Hassan Tali Al-AsiriN/A
16-Jun-11Othman Al-GhamdiN/A
17-Jun-14Shawki Ali Ahmed al-BadaniN/A
15-Jul-14Anders Cameroon Ostensvig DaleN/A
18-Dec-14Ibrahim al-RubayshN/A
29-Sep-15Peter CherifN/A
05-Jan-17Ibrahim al-BannaN/A
04-Jan-18Muhammad al-GhazaliN/A
23-Jan-18Khalid BatarfiN/A


[i]U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, "Designations of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula and Senior Leaders," January 19, 2010.  

[ii]U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, "Designations of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula and Senior Leaders," January 19, 2010.  

[iii]"Security Council Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee Adds Names of Two Individuals, One Entity to Consolidate List," UN Security Council, January 19, 2010  

[iv]"Individuals and Entities Designated by the State Department under E.O. 13224,” U.S. Department of State, accessed February 28, 2018  


Community Relations

Some analysts claim that AQAP depends on a strong relationship with local communities in Yemen for recruitment and protection. Analysts cite high unemployment rates, high rates of poverty, and dwindling supplies of oil and water as reasons why Yemeni local tribes have reportedly provided a safe haven and fertile recruiting grounds to AQAP. AQAP has actively worked to win favor by marrying AQAP members into local tribes and providing social and financial assistance to areas plagued by abject poverty. AQAP provides services for the community such as digging wells, paying for medical treatments for locals, even paying monthly allowances to widows[i]  In addition, AQAP pays higher than market price for commodities such as goats. In exchange for these services, some local tribesmen have allowed AQAP to recruit their sons and provided shelter for AQAP, blending insurgents into Yemeni local populations. 

Other reports disagree. For example, the New York Times in 2010 argued that the number of tribal leaders that welcomed AQAP is very low and asserted that several tribes banished AQAP members from their areas[ii]  AQAP’s recruits had been historically small in number, in part due to the differences between AQAP’s ideology of violent jihad and the local culture’s conflict resolution techniques. [iii]

AQAP has also attempted to exploit local frustrations to attract new members. The group focused recruitment videos on corruption and the failing Yemeni government rather than global jihad. More recently, AQAP’s communications have focused on unity against “enemies of Islam,” such as the U.S., Europe, and Iran, while also issuing messages that support al-Zawahiri. [iv]AQAP has also been galvanizing Sunni Muslims in Yemen against the Houthis, who they claim are supported by Iran. AQAP has made efforts to engender good will, especially since the fall of the Yemeni government, even going as far as compensating family members of those killed in US drone strikes, in addition to those harmed as collateral damage from their own operations. [v]

Usama Bin Ladin explained in a letter to Wuhayshi “Our opinion is to appoint scholars and tribal shaykhs to accomplish a practical truce among them, which will help the stability of Yemen…. Therefore, the people of Yemen will continue supporting the mujahidin. The government will be responsible for the war, not us, and it will show the people that we are careful in keeping the Islamic Ummah united and the Muslims safe.”[vi]Gradualism, Bin Laden explained, originated from the lessons of the Sunni tribes turning on foreign elements of al Qaeda in Iraq because of heavy handed tactics.  This guidance significantly improved community relations, with AQAP partially rebranding under the name Ansar al-Sharia to distance itself from past missteps. While questions remain regarding the tribes’ acceptance of AQAP’s assistance versus embracing its ideology, a common enemy has provided incentive for improved relations.[vii]  

[i]Levinson, Charles. "Al Qaeda's Deep Tribal Ties Make Yemen a Terror Hub," The Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2010  

[ii]El-Naggar, Mona. Worth, Robert F. "Yemen's Drive on Al Qaeda Faces Internal Skepticism," New York Times, November 3, 2010.  

[iii]Harris, Alistair. "Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Carnegie Papers, May 2010  

[iv]“AQAP’S ideology battles home and abroad” Hudson Institute. Jan. 20, 2015.  

[v]Michael Horton, “Fighting the Long War: The Evolution of Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” CTC Sentinel, January 2017, Vol. 10, Issue 1

[vi]Bin Ladin, Usama. “Letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi.” West Point Combating Terrorism Center.     

[vii]Horton, Michael. “Fighting the Long War: The Evolution of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.” CTC Sentinel, Jan. 2017, Vol.10, Issue 1


Relationships with Other Groups

AQAP is loyal to AQ’s core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.[i]AQAP announced support for ISIS and offered advice to the group in a statement on its website in August 2014.[ii]  In November of that year, however, AQAP declared Baghdadi’s caliphate illegitimate and refuted him after he claimed that Yemen was a part of his Islamic State.[iii]  By 2015 ISIS in Yemen had engaged in direct competition with AQAP, expanding its presence to eight Yemeni governates and conducting regular attacks.[iv]  Initially, IS gained momentum in its competition with AQAP including defections of notable ideologue Sheikh Mamoun Hatem and cleric Abdul-Majid al-Hitari. Combined with the impact of US targeting of prominent leaders including the killing of Wuhayshi in June 2015, IS seized upon the battle of Aden to further radicalize youth and recruit suicide bombers for high profile attacks against security forces like the Mukalla recruitment center on August 29, 2016, killing 60. This contradicted the AQAP strategy of ingratiating themselves with the local population, and they publicly criticized IS, denouncing attacks on mosques in a media campaign. AQAP then began to regain momentum, as the brutal tactics of IS failed to resonate with the Yemeni people. IS leadership was composed of foreigners and their autocratic rule contradicted tribal norms. In December 2015, 15 senior leaders and 55 fighters accused the IS wali (governor) of Yemen of violating Sharia and defected from the group, followed by an additional 31 fighters and 3 seniors, who renounced the group. Drawing on their cultural context, and strategy of gradualism, AQAP’s integration has proven far more enduring and effective.[v]

In April 2010, after AQAP officially established its base in Yemen, Somali government officials claimed that AQAP made contacts with Hizbul Islam and Al Shabab. Somali Minister of the Treasury Abdirahman Omar Osman stated that twelve AQ officials entered Somalia from Yemen to bring monetary assistance to bolster Al Shabab's recruitment capabilities.[vi]The strength of the two groups' relationship is unclear; however, in February 2010 AQAP leader Said al-Shihri announced that the Bab el-Mandab Strait was a strategic target due to its high flow of oil transit traffic. He stated that AQAP "is looking to control the strait with the help of Somali mujahedeen to achieve global influence."[vii]  In addition, US officials believe that AQAP has shared its chemical bomb-making capacities with other militant groups, including Al-Shabab. [viii]  The US captured Ahmed Warsame, a high ranking al Shabab operative and close associate of Anwar al-Awlaki, in 2011 leaving Yemen in a skiff, and in 2012, al Shabab sent 300 fighters to train and fight with AQAP against the Yemeni government. Links between AQAP and Al Shabab were strong until military setbacks in both Somalia and Yemen required their attention, but a 2017 600-person maritime assault into Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern Puntland region could represent efforts toward reestablishing lines of communication.[ix]

Since 2015, the civil war has provided space for AQAP to reorganize, establish alliances with local tribal and political factions, recruit and train fighters, and develop revenue streams. In the Hadramawt region, these local alliances of convenience allow AQAP to assume the role of protector of marginalized local elites who fear colonization by the Saudi and Emirati governments and theft of oil wealth. AQAP’s ideological flexibility relative to IS has enabled adaptation and cooperation with various groups and factions, at times allegedly including the Yemeni National Security Agency. [x]

[i]Harris, Alistair. "Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Carnegie Papers, May 2010    

[ii]Al-Moshki, Ali Ibrahim. "AQAP Announces Support for ISIL." Yemen Times. Aug. 19, 2014.

[iii]Cruickshank, Paul. "Al Qaeda in Yemen Rebukes ISIS." CNN. Nov. 21, 2014.

[iv]Zimmerman, Katherine. “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Leaders and their Networks.” Critical Threats. September 27, 2012.    

[v]“Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base.” International Crisis Group. Feb. 2, 2017  

[vii]Darem, Faisal. "Arab officials identify link between Somali pirates and al-Qaeda," Al-Shorfa, November 16, 2010

[viii]Miller, Greg and Peter Finn. "CIA sees increased threat from al-Qaeda in Yemen," The Washington Post, August 24, 2010

[ix]Meservey, Joshua. “Al Shabab’s Resurgance.” Heritage Foundation. Jan. 4, 2017  

[x]Horton, Michael. “Guns for Hire: How al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is Securing Its Future in Yemen.” The Jamestown Foundation. Jan. 26, 2017.  


State Sponsors and External Influences

There are no publicly available external influences for this group.


The project develops a series of interactive diagrams that “map” relationships among groups and show how those relationships change over time. The user can change map settings to display different features (e.g., leadership changes), adjust the time scale, and trace individual groups.

Evolving Militant Interactions

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