AQAP’s success increases the likelihood of it mounting an attack against the West

Key Points

  • AQAP is actively engaged in the Yemeni civil war alongside local Sunni tribes, embedding itself in local resistance forces fighting the Houthi Movement.
  • By exploiting a persistent security vacuum and the absence of effective state institutions, AQAP is in process of asserting itself as the dominant actor across much of southern Yemen. AQAP is also rising as the most authoritative of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates and Al-Qaeda’s main ideological point of reference globally.
  • Success in Yemen will probably enable AQAP to turn its attention on the ‘far enemy’ in 2017.


Since the beginning of the Yemeni civil war in February 2015, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has exploited the security vacuum created by the conflict to increase its operational capabilities and become integrated in the armed Sunni opposition against the Shia-Zaidi Houthi Movement. Further consolidation in southern Yemen increases the likelihood that AQAP will mount another attack on the West in 2017.

During the first phase of the Yemeni civil war (February 2015 – April 2016), AQAP largely remained on the sideline, prioritising establishing territorial control over fighting the Houthi Movement. At the peak of its territorial expansion in February 2016, the group was in control of nine Yemeni towns and cities, including Al-Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadramawt. Rather than an attempt to establish a local emirate and challenge the Caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, this grab for territory was aimed at financial recovery and cementing its relationships with local Salafist-leaning tribes.

This was pivotal to the group’s efforts to replenish its ranks from new recruits drawn from those local Sunni tribes opposed to both the Houthi takeover of power in Sanaa and the consequent Saudi-led intervention in the country. The port city of Al-Mukalla, for instance, was central to AQAP’s economic activities, which led to its financial recovery.