The horrific images and story of 14 murdered soldiers that came out of Yemen on August 8 pale in comparison to those coming from Iraq and Syria. Yet they may presage the emergence of a renewed threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that the U.S and Yemen are ill-prepared to handle. The murders deviate from what has become an accepted level of violence in Yemen, where captured individuals-civilians and soldiers alike-are usually released. The ruthless attack occurred after Yemeni military forces ousted the insurgent arm of AQAP from a city in the remote eastern governorate of Hadramawt. Though the violence is shocking, the re-emergence of Ansar al Sharia as a fighting insurgent force is of more concern. The revitalization of AQAP's insurgency in Yemen, coupled with continued terrorist attacks, may overwhelm the capabilities of Yemen's security forces, re-opening a major front in the struggle against al Qaeda as the situation in Iraq and Syria continues to deteriorate.
The United States partners with the Yemeni government to combat AQAP, the al Qaeda affiliate behind multiple attempted attacks on the U.S. homeland. The results of the partnership have been mixed. American airstrikes have degraded part of AQAP's leadership network and Yemeni ground forces have disrupted AQAP operations to some degree, but the group continues to constitute a threat both to the Yemeni state and to American interests at home and abroad.
A key challenge to the success of the U.S. anti-AQAP strategy arose in 2011, when AQAP fielded its insurgent force, Ansar al Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law), in Abyan governorate. A security vacuum permitted the insurgents to seize control of most of the governorate rapidly. Ansar al Sharia solidified control over the course of the year, and AQAP announced the establishment of the "Emirate of Waqar." It took the combined efforts of the Yemeni military and local tribal militias to rout the insurgents. Yemen faces both a terrorism and an insurgency problem, but its security forces are not prepared for a counter-insurgency campaign, nor is the U.S. military assistance designed to build these capabilities.
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Katherine Zimmerman, "Insurgency in Yemen: The New Challenge to American Counter-Terrorism Strategy," AEI's Critical Threats Project, March 19, 2012. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/insurgency-yemen-american-counter-terrorism-strategy-march-19-2012
Sasha Gordon, "Abyani Tribes and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen," AEI's Critical Threats Project, July 25, 2012. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/gordon-abyani-tribes-and-al-qaeda-arabian-peninsula-july-25-2012
Katherine Zimmerman, "Yemen Model Won't Work in Iraq, Syria," The Washington Post, July 17, 2014. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-yemen-model-wont-work-in-iraq-syria/2014/07/17/ba0ae414-0d18-11e4-8341-b8072b1e7348_story.html