Osama Bin Laden’s Files: AQAP emir foreshadowed 2011 takeover of southern Yemen

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Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who later became al Qaeda’s general manager, detailed the group’s strengths in Yemen’s provinces prior its spring 2011 offensive that saw much of the south fall under its control.

Wuhayshi, who was killed by the US in a drone strike in June 2015, outlined AQAP’s position in an undated letter that was addressed to an unnamed “brother.” The letter, which was seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was one of more than 100 released on March 1 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The letter appears to have been written sometime in early or mid-2010, while Yemen was experiencing political upheaval and President Abdullah Salih was under pressure to step down. In the letter, Wuhayshi responded to questions from “Abu ‘Uthman,” and notes that “The political conflict is deteriorating and the situation of the country is about to fall apart.” He advocated that AQAP take action lest it fail to capitalize on the political chaos.

“Our fear is that, if it falls apart without us having a presence on all levels, we will face competition” from the various factions in Yemen, including “the Muslim Brotherhood and Communists, especially in the South” the Iran-backed Houthis in the north, The Southern Movement (Hirak), and the Revolution Council led by Tariq al Fadhli, Wuhayshi noted.

“Our situation, thanks to Allah, is improving for the mujahidin, and as I have mentioned in my previous letters, if you ever wanted Sanaa [the capital of Yemen], today is the day!” Wuhayshi wrote.

Wuhayshi then went on to outline the “regions” in Yemen where AQAP is “centralized.” First on his list was Abyan, “which is considered one of the largest area in which we have supporters, presence, and many members, and we have more influence than the Hirak southern secessionist forces.”

The next two most important provinces for AQAP are Shabwa and Marib, “which is the largest area and has tribal influence; we are taking advantage of the ruggedness of its land and the influence of its members.”

“Then it’s Al Jawf, and Sa’dah in Wadi Abu Jbarah, and Arhab [in] Sanaa, which is considered the largest area in which we hold power,” he continued. “We have supporters and sympathizers in Lahij, Ad Dali’, Aden, Hadramawt, Sanaa, and Al Hudaydah and others.”

Wuhayshi then noted the importance of the tribes and their leaders, and said “they have pledged allegiance and they are with us even if they are only a few.” However, “some of them are afraid and prefer to be neutral.”

AQAP goes on the offensive

Other documents released from bin Laden’s cache from Abbottabad show there was an ongoing discussion between Wuhayshi and al Qaeda’s central leadership over the merits and pitfalls of taking control of territory in Yemen.

Bin Laden responded to Wuhayshi’s letter where he said “if you ever wanted Sanaa [the capital of Yemen], today is the day,” and said it was too soon for AQAP to attempt to overthrow the government. The lengthy letter is undated, but was likely written in the spring of 2010.

In another letter, likely written by bin Laden in May 2010 that is addressed to his general manager, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, the al Qaeda emir advocated that AQAP avoid attacking the Yemeni military and police and suggested it only attack US interests in the country. Atiyah responds in July 2010, and told bin Laden that war in Yemen is imminent and that it is time to prepare a military strategy with Wuhayshi. In a letter dated Aug. 7, 2010, bin Laden told Atiyah he is awaiting the details from Wuhayshi in order to discuss the matter on a wider scale to make the most suitable decision.” On Aug. 27, 2010, bin Laden told Atiyah he is awaiting input for Yemeni strategy from Wuhayshi, Anwar al Awlaki, and Said al Shihri.

While the conclusion of this discussion was not disclosed in the recently released filed, AQAP went on the offensive in southern Yemen beginning in April 2011. And based on Wuhayshi’s prior assessment, AQAP targeted many of the areas he said were vulnerable.

By the summer of 2011, AQAP controlled most if not all of Shabwa and Abyan, two of the three provinces he identified as jihadists bastions. AQAP also seized territory in Marib, Lahj, Baydah, and Hadramout. Until the Yemeni government and military regrouped in the spring of 2012, AQAP controlled and administered a large portion of southern Yemen.

While AQAP lost the ground it held in southern Yemen after one year, Wuhayshi said the sacrifice was worth it. In two letters, written in May 2012 and August 2012 to Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Wuhayshi advised AQIM be patient in seizing territory in Mali and to slowly implement sharia, or Islamic law. He also detailed AQAP’s losses, and concluded it was worth the effort.

“The control of these areas during one year cost us 500 martyrs, 700 wounded, 10 cases of hand or leg amputation and nearly $20 million,” he said. AQAP’s “position now is far better” despite its losses, as the year of governing large areas gave it “a rare opportunity for guerrilla warfare and liquidations [assassinations].” Additionally, “most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid from through the spoils” of war as well as by taking hostages. [See LWJ report, Wuhayshi imparted lessons of AQAP operations in Yemen to AQIM.]

Wuhayshi appears to have been correct. AQAP regrouped after losing ground in southern Yemen in 2012, and capitalized on the next round of Yemeni political turmoil. In 2015, AQAP took advantage of the Houthi takeover of the capital of Sana’a and large areas in western, central, and southern Yemen. Today, AQAP again controls large areas of southern Yemen, primarily in Abyan, Shabwa, Hadramout, and Lahj. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda seizes more territory in southern Yemen.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.

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4 Comments

  • Anthony Celso says:

    This suggests how little bin Laden was listened too. AQ affiliates have historically pursued their own strategy to fight the near enemy. In fact the central organization’s signature far enemy strategy has all but collapsed in the wake of the turmoil of the Arab Spring with a weak leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urging Jabhat al Nusra not to attack the US. One side note AQ’s discourse is increasingly sectarian indicating how the influence of the Islamic State.

  • ulises says:

    AL-QAEDA IN YEMEN STAY IN THE OFFENSIVE TO CAPTURE THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.WITHOUT LEADER.

  • Evan says:

    Incredible, it seems that AQ’s leadership was very much beholden to the opinions and directives of Bin Laden.
    OBL was running the organization the entire time, and the narrative that he, and other AQ leaders were/are so busy running/hiding that they didn’t have time for anything else is now totally and completely debunked.
    AQ has effectively metastasized, under the guidance and direction of OBL, it has become something so much more than what it was pre 9/11. The narrative from the West, from Governments, “Intelligence,” Agencies, etc, that AQ is a defeated, shattered, organization that is gasping for its last breathes is an utter falsehood, and while the worlds attention is focused on the Islamic State, which is excellent news for AQ for lots of reasons, it is steadily gaining more and more power and capability.
    The enemy that we will face in the future will be a vastly different monster, one that is resilient, has vast resources, and bases from which to plan attacks not just in Af/Pak, but many other locales, all over the planet.

  • craig hovey says:

    The mess in Yemen seems to have been no surprise to the terrorists. Why is it that our administration was caught off guard?

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