How to respond to the growing threat from the Gulf of Aden?

Muhammad ud-Deen/Wikimedia Commons

Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, Oct. 2008. The U.S.-born cleric, who was key al-Qaida figure, was killed in 2011.

Article Highlights

  • #AQAP has already attacked America twice from #Yemen and now it's benefiting from the spread of the Arab Spring.

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  • Relying on the Yemeni military’s offensive in the south to roll back al Qaeda’s territorial control is problematic.

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  • Resting American counterterrorism policy on the tactic of targeted killings is problematic. #AQAP

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This is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security & Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22.

Defeating al Qaeda is one the United States’ primary national security objectives and the strategy to achieve this is clear: deny al Qaeda safe havens, degrade its leadership, and disrupt its networks. American policy makers have failed to implement this strategy outside of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The result has been a growing threat from the Gulf of Aden region, where two of al Qaeda’s franchises—al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al Shabaab in Somalia—have established safe havens.

AQAP has already attacked America twice from Yemen and now it is benefiting from the spread of the Arab Spring to that country. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a long-unpopular ruler who at one point earned the moniker of “Little Saddam,” has clung to power at all costs. The already weak military is divided over support of Saleh and a defected division has repeatedly engaged loyalist security forces in the capital, Sana’a. In the spring, when international attention turned to Saleh’s unfulfilled promises of signing a transition deal, al Qaeda-linked militants quietly took over towns in south Yemen. These insurgents, calling themselves “Ansar al Sharia” (Supporters of Islamic Law), carved off significant swathes of territory in Abyan, which connects AQAP’s strongholds in Shabwah to Aden, south Yemen’s former capital. Ansar al Sharia is essentially AQAP’s insurgent arm.

"Resting American counterterrorism policy on the tactic of targeted killings is problematic." --Katharine Zimmerman

Relying on the Yemeni military’s offensive in the south to roll back al Qaeda’s territorial control is problematic. First, this assumes that the military, which has been unsuccessful against armed opposition groups before, will be capable of defeating Ansar al Sharia in Abyan. Second, it also assumes that the regime will prioritize the fight against al Qaeda and deploy additional military assets as needed. And third, there is the underlying assumption that the regime will then pursue al Qaeda in other governorates where it has had established sanctuaries for years.

Resting American counterterrorism policy on the tactic of targeted killings is problematic as well. Targeted killings alone have not led to the defeat of any other al Qaeda organization and it is wrong to believe that they will in Yemen. The recent uptick in drone strikes in Yemen has not effectively degraded AQAP’s leadership. The long-term impact of Anwar al Awlaki’s death is minimal. Moreover, AQAP’s founding leadership, including the bomb maker for two attacks against the United States, remains untouched.

Is it acceptable, then, to cede control of territory in Yemen to an al Qaeda organization with the hope that continued targeting of its leadership will keep the organization’s activities in check? Or must the United States develop a more robust policy toward Yemen that will lead to the actual defeat of a virulent al Qaeda organization in the long term?

Katherine Zimmerman is an analyst for the Critical Threats Project.

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About the Author


  • Katherine Zimmerman is a senior analyst and the al Qaeda and Associated Movements Team Lead for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. Her work has focused on al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Gulf of Aden region and associated movements in western and northern Africa. She specializes in the Yemen-based group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia, al Shabaab. Katherine has testified in front of Congress and briefed Members and congressional staff, as well as members of the defense community. She has written analyses of U.S. national security interests related to the threat from the al Qaeda network for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN Global Public Square, and the Huffington Post, among others. Katherine graduated with distinction from Yale University with a B.A. in Political Science and Modern Middle East Studies.


    Follow Katherine Zimmerman on Twitter.

  • Phone: (202) 828-6023

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