AQAP vs. ISIS in Yemen: The Battle For the Soul of Jihad

Note: I’ll be out of town between the 4th and the 15th, in a wilderness repast, with little to absolutely zero connection to the internet or my phone. Posts during this time, written in advance, will be bigger-picture, or more idiosyncratic, rather than directly pegged to the news. If events happen that supersede or negate anything I say, think of these as a more innocent time capsule. Try not to let the country burn down while I’m gone, ok? 


ISIS appears in Yemen in 2015. Image from al-Arabiya English.

A little more than 10 years ago, in early February of 2006, there was a massive jailbreak in from a Yemeni prison, in which 23 Islamic militant tunneled out of their cells and into the women’s bathroom of a nearby mosque, from which they disappeared into the San’a morning (for a detailed look at this, buy Greg Johnsen’s The Last Refuge).  Among the 23 were old militants, like Jamal al-Badawi, one of the masterminds of the USS Cole bombing. He was the big name. Others, like the al-Raymi brothers, weren’t as known.

That was soon to change. What we didn’t realize immediately was that the jailbreak wouldn’t be seen as part of the old battle against al-Qaeda in Yemen, but a new phase with a new group. Over the next few years, and through various names, the younger generation of jihadists took over the organization, before unveiling, the day of the Obama inauguration in 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They had shown themselves to be a patient, smart, and to-the-vest group, and that paid off by becoming the dominant al-Qaeda branch in the heartland of Islam.

For years, people in the know were warning about how dangerous they were, because they were patient and smart, because they kept it close to the vest. They saw the carnage of al-Zarqawi in Iraq and realized you couldn’t build a coalition like that. Their whole goal was to build coalitions, attract foreign fighters through audacious but targeted strikes agaisnt the far enemy, defeat the near enemy (Salih, secular southerners), and eventually have enough land where they could expand unmolested.

That was then. Now they are the old guard, fighting off the ravening, cannibalistic tide of ISIS, which has brought their particular brand of violence to a land destroyed by war, ravaged by poverty, and stalked by hunger. What is happening between the groups is a battle for the very idea of the future of Islamic militancy. It is the horrible past versus the unimaginable future.

Continue reading