Analysis: Why AQAP quickly denied any connection to mosque attacks

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Almost as quickly as the Islamic State’s branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for suicide attacks at mosques attended by Houthis in Sana’a earlier today, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) denied any connection to the coordinated bombings. There is a simple reason why: Such attacks are inconsistent with al Qaeda’s guidelines for waging jihad.

In its statement denying any ties to the bombings, AQAP stressed that it remains “committed to the guidelines” issued by Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri. Those guidelines advise against “targeting mosques, markets, and public places out of concern for the lives of innocent Muslims, and to prioritize the paramount interests,” AQAP’s message reads, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

The Islamic State and its followers have rejected Zawahiri’s approach, carrying on with indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Indeed, today’s bombings in Yemen are further evidence of the divide within the jihadist world. The disagreements between the al Qaeda axis and the Islamic State are not just about who is the jihadists’ rightful ruler. They have very different approaches to combating their enemies and building support for their efforts.

Today’s statement from AQAP did not reflect a sudden change in course. The group has long advocated in favor of Zawahiri’s guidelines, and has even apologized when its fighters violated them.

In an interview that was released in January, an AQAP official named Nasser bin Ali al Ansi explained his organization’s approach to fighting the Houthis. Al Ansi is not only one of AQAP’s most senior figures, he also serves in the upper echelon of al Qaeda’s global network. Based on documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound and other evidence, The Long War Journal has previously identified al Ansi as one of al Qaeda’s deputy general managers. [See LWJ report, Osama bin Laden’s Files: Al Qaeda’s deputy general manager in Yemen.]

Several of the questions addressed to al Ansi during the AQAP interview dealt with the Houthis. Al Ansi was asked about a “recent martyrdom-seeking operation in Sana’a that specifically targeted” the “rejectionists,” a derogatory term used for Shiites. The interviewer wanted to know why AQAP went through with the attack as it appeared to violate Zawahiri’s “instructions,” meaning the aforementioned guidelines.

“There is really no difference in our views,” al Ansi explained, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. The operation “did not target the demonstrators, but rather the security belt that surrounded them, composed of a large number of Houthis,” al Ansi claimed.

Al Ansi continued by explaining that Nasir al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s emir and al Qaeda’s general manager, “gave clear instructions to the operating cells to avoid attacking mixed gatherings and to focus on armed Houthis.” AQAP’s fighters are “abiding by this rule as far as we know.” According to al Ansi, AQAP has asked its “brothers” to “be careful” when targeting Houthi gatherings and to focus on “the ones where their military armed forces exist, their headquarters, and their other posts.” AQAP fighters are supposed to avoid “areas where common Muslims are found,” such as mosques.

The al Qaeda official warned Muslims to “stay away from Houthi gatherings and locations,” but his directions were clear. AQAP avoids attacks on Houthi civilians when possible.

And today’s attacks by the Islamic State’s fighters were the complete opposite of what al Qaeda wants.

When Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, announced his organization’s expansion into Yemen and elsewhere last November, he deliberately sought to undermine AQAP’s legitimacy. If the Houthis had encountered real mujahideen, Baghdadi claimed, then their “their evil would not have festered.” In other words, the Islamic State would have stopped the Houthis’ advances.

Baghdadi’s words were carefully chosen, and part of propaganda campaign that portrays al Qaeda as being soft on the Houthis and other Shiites. The Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, has even gone so far as to argue that “Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably,” because the jihadists heeded Zawahiri’s directive to avoid attacks inside the mullahs’ country.

Baghdadi’s criticism was so pronounced that another AQAP official, Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari (who was subsequently killed in a US drone strike), was forced to respond. Less than two weeks after Baghdadi’s message, Nadhari said that he and others “were hurt by what Sheikh Abu Bakr al Baghdadi said, and it hurt the Muslims in the trench of Yemen, when he said that the Houthis found no monotheists to fight them.” This is false, Nadhari argued, and AQAP cannot believe “the likes of the Sheikh” would “say such a thing.”

But AQAP should believe that Baghdadi would make such a claim. Today’s attacks in Sana’a are part of the Islamic State’s strategy.

There is dissent within the jihadist community regarding al Qaeda’s policy regarding Shiites. And the Islamic State knows this. Many Sunni jihadists want to let the Shiites’ blood flow, and they do not want to calibrate their attacks to avoid Shiite civilians. Al Qaeda believes that such attacks alienate much of the Muslim population in the long run. The Islamic State sees such operations as not only legitimate, but also as a tool for inciting further violence, thereby radicalizing more of the population for its cause.

AQAP’s interview with al Ansi in January highlighted this key difference. One questioner wanted to know why Zawahiri and al Qaeda “attribute only ignorance” to the Shiites instead of general disbelief. If Shiites were deemed infidels, of course, it would pave the way for unbridled violence against Houthi civilians.

Al Ansi responded by arguing that al Qaeda’s approach “has been the view of many elders and scholars,” including the medieval ideologue Ibn Taymiyyah, who remains a popular thinker among jihadists. Al Ansi cited “current jihadist scholars” such as Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, and Abu Yahya al Libi as all being of the same view. (Rahman and al Libi served in al Qaeda’s management before being killed in US drone strikes.)

However, al Ansi conceded this “has been a controversial issue for years and all interpretation efforts are appreciated.” Thus, even AQAP’s man couldn’t say that his jihadist opponents were definitely wrong.

Still other questions during al Ansi’s interview implied that AQAP wasn’t doing enough to combat the Houthis. When asked why AQAP didn’t stop the Houthis from overtaking Sana’a, al Ansi responded by pointing out his group didn’t control the city at the time. Al Ansi also had to explain that AQAP couldn’t shell all of the Houthis’ positions as they often operate in areas whether other Muslims live. Though the Houthis’ “headquarters” were fair game.

All of this is likely part of the reason that the Islamic State’s first major operation in Yemen focused on mosques visited by Houthis. AQAP attacks the Houthis frequently, but tries to keep its violence focused on military and security targets.

The Islamic State’s followers have no bounds on their terror.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • tester says:

    Tks Learning online

  • Arjuna says:

    This is an old story. IS, born of AQI, has always liked to kill Shias, and not just the ones with guns. Pilgrims in processions, mothers and babies in markets, children on their way to school. They did with abandon in Iraq from 2004-2014, and in Syria from 2011 until today. Why would they temper their hate and bloodlust now? Their viciousness is getting them all the attention any terrorist group could want.

    AQI, not AQ Central, is the true ideological mother (Umm Daesh) of the Islamic State. Zarqawi was every bit as psychopathic as our new opponents. Bin Laden tried to rein him in just like Wuhayshi and Zawahiri are criticizing Baghdadi targeting the Shias. Without success, in both cases. The knife, once wetted, remains hungry.

    Keep reading entrails if you want, o ye experts, and trying to divine which murderer believes what fairy tale and why… I say kill them all.

    Small nit: forced to responded?

  • blert says:

    This is a theme straight from the Thirty-Years War. (1618-1648)

    It was the last time Europeans engaged in total war — and in every direction.

    It started out rather conventionally, with a ‘petty’ land disputed consequent to the death of a minor prince along the Austrian border — then it morphed into a raging Protestant-Catholic religious war — and ended with Catholic France flipping sides: joining the Protestants to thwart the Austrian-Spanish ‘axis.’

    You could spend your entire life trying to figure out the twists and turns of that centuries old conflict. For the most part, it wouldn’t make any sense.

    It was ended by the peace of Westphalia — and the beginning of what the West regards as the norms of war. Today, the prior, total lack of limitations on behavior, is known as “unlawful warfare.”

    The Thirty-Years War is EXACTLY what needs be studied to understand the current Sunni-Shi’ite world war. For both are being fought (were fought) without ANY limits on behavior.

    During the TYW both sides found that their combatants couldn’t ‘stay on script.’ At one time or another, the combatants would attack their own societies — usually for ‘the paycheck.’

    [This was a time before soldiers: combatants ‘got paid’ by looting the opposition. When that became too difficult, they ‘paid themselves’ by looting their own side. This chaotic period was so traumatic that you but rarely see it portrayed in any period film. Modern audiences would be revulsed.]

    The Last Valley ^^^ is just about the only film one might run across.


    Eventually, both sides began blaming the other for their own atrocities, as all semblence of command and control went by the wayside.

    All modern Western armies are built around the social controls that prohibit all of the above. Hence, soldiers are paid directly by the sovereigns, looting is flatly prohibited, officers are always responsible for the conduct of their troops, etc.

    Absolutely none of these norms is accepted or practiced by Muslims… or the rest of the planet, for that matter. (cf the conduct of the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, Red China, North Korea, Communist Vietnam, et. al.)

    The Western circumspection about the ways of war is absolutely baffling to non-Westerners. Normally, they take it as a sign of weakness — of the Western societies. What non-Westerners can’t comprehend is that without the Western rules of war, Western armies would utterly annihilate all opposition, all non-Western societes — entire. Rather than being ‘weak,’ Western ways of war are so far ahead that that non-Western societies have only (Western) guilt and (Western) morality to save their very lives.

    If ever the Western restraint gives way, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the existence of hostiles would be permitted.

    El-Sisi has tried to get this point across with his recent speech. I doubt his words have sunk in.

    The ummah has only two exports: oil and poverty. If left to their own devices, their numbers would crash. Which makes their jihad against the food exporters of the world doubly insane. (America, Australia, Canada, …)


    It’s going to be a very, very, very, long war. At its apex, this Sunni-Shi’ite conflict can reasonably be expected to entirely eclipse all prior conflicts for blood and ruin.

    And there is not too much the West can do about it.

    Giving Iran atomics merely amplifies the imminence of the destruction.

  • rtloder says:

    Ibn Taymiyya clearly stated jihad had to be a National Decision, coming from the very Top, what community does Zawahiri represent,?, and besides if that “we don’t attack civilians specifically were true, al-Qa’eda would have disowned the Nusrah Front long long ago.

  • Arjuna says:

    Blert, you are super-smart and know your history, but nation states with “atomics” are not what America should be focused on. Whether the Mullahs spin 5 or 15 thousand centrifuges matters little to America’s security. They will get the bomb regardless of what John Kerry negotiates and use it to deter conventional forces like ours and the Israelis as they continue to consolidate power in the ME. We need to deal with terrorists, not Iran. Simply giving refuge to AQ is not a casus belli, just ask our friends in PK. The real backers of Apocalyptic terror are the Saudis and Qataris and the various nationals in the Islamic State. AQ and IS still don’t have a return address. That is why they, not Iran, are so worrying. No deterrent is working on them, especially as we draw down our forces from the areas they populate.

  • Rosario says:


    Well said sir, the “arab spring” is better named the “arab reformation” with Sunni-Shi’ite interests hell-bent on obtaining nuclear weapons to use against themselves, Israel and us. The “western circumspection about the ways of war” would be turned on its head should a nuclear device be discharged against a western city.

  • ER says:

    ok, except it’s not that AQ believes such attacks “alienate much of the Muslim population in the long run,” but rather in the short run — in the long run killing shia is good to them

  • Richard T says:

    Excellent complement to Kissenger’s analysis


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram