On Friday, Yara Bayoumy, Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari filed an amazing Reuters investigative report about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and how they were erecting a true mini-state in the south of Yemen: keeping the peace, collecting taxes, doing the roadwork, punishing the rich for stealing from generations of the poor, and so forth. They were levying tributes from ships, much like a real country. It’s a tremendous read, and a powerful look at how smart terrorist organizations work
AQAP has flown under the radar since the terrifying rise of ISIS, and have even been relegated to the back of Yemeni news thanks to the Huthi rise and the Saudi invasion. But they have never stopped organizing, and most importantly, have never stopped learning lessons.
This statecraft hasn’t come out of nowhere. The hallmark of AQAP has been their ability to synthesize lesson from jihadi and other groups throughout history. They have seen what works, and what hasn’t. Their recruitment of foreign fighters was an intelligent and calculated maneuver to get actual soldiers, not just dumbstruck fanatics who wanted to die.
In this way, and in many other ways, they are different from ISIS. It isn’t that they aren’t as bloodthirsty. It is more that they aren’t obsessed with the Sturm und Drang of jihadism. This isn’t a collection of psychopathic or traumatized misfits who find glory in executions and who strike back at the world with teenage glee. Death may be necessary to advance the mission, but it isn’t the mission in and of itself. AQAP has always been focused on the long game, building resources and alliances, and striking when needed. Long-range attacks like the underwear bomber were salvos, a riskless enterprise that was more a way to announce themselves to the global jihadi movement as legitimate players. It’s how they get their best people, but they don’t make attacks recklessly.
And now they are forging a state out of the wreckage of Yemen. The optimistic view is that having to be a state will actually sap the energy of jihad, and that dealing with Yemen’s fractured politics will modify them, until it gets to a point where the original idea is more like a corporate mission statement, something motioned to, but not really put into practice. I don’t think that is entirely far-fetched. Violence giving way to responsibility giving way to a normal state of affairs is the path that every civilization takes.
What is more likely though is that they are shepherding resources, gaining more recruits, training actual soldiers, and will wait for the Saudis and the Huthis and whatever is left of the central Yemeni state to exhaust themselves, and then will continue to attempt to take over the hear horizon, with their eyes, as always,ceaselessly focused on what is next. They’ll be around after ISIS is a nightmarish memory.