x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Al Qa'eda spreads its terror web

Analysis The brazen attempt to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Naif in Jeddah focuses attention on the re-emergence of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The brazen attempt to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Naif in Jeddah on August 27 has focused attention on the re-emergence of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the threat to regional security from the nexus of instability linking Yemen with the Horn of Africa. Alongside state failure in Somalia, the contraction of state control in Yemen poses a direct and destabilising threat to the states of the Gulf Co-operation Council. It also has profound strategic and commercial implications for regional and global trade routes through the chokepoint of the Bab el-Mandab, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

Prince Mohammed, the deputy interior minister and architect of Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism strategy that blunted the previous wave of AQAP militancy in 2003-2004, escaped death when 23-year old Abdullah Asiri blew himself up while waiting to enter Prince Mohammed's private office to renounce his terrorist links. Asiri was on a list of 85 "most-wanted" terror suspects issued by Saudi authorities in February. He found refuge in Yemen before returning to Saudi Arabia to carry out the attack, which was the first significant one by militants inside the kingdom since 2006.

This incident was significant on three levels. Firstly, targeting a senior member of the Saudi royal family by Islamist extremists departed from earlier patterns of attacks on western symbols and oil installations. It also provided a stark reminder of the reappearance of the AQAP threat after its reconstitution in Yemen in January 2009. Secondly, AQAP demonstrated both its intent and, on this occasion, its capability, to penetrate the deepest levels of security to strike at the heart of the state apparatus.

Thirdly, the method of attack raises questions about the credibility of the kingdom's counter-radicalisation programme as an innovative approach to winning the war of ideas in the struggle against violent extremism. Following defeat in Saudi Arabia, remnants of AQAP utilised the ungoverned spaces and security gaps in Yemen to regroup and reorganise. A spate of high-profile incidents in 2008 culminated in the co-ordinated assault on the US Embassy in Sana'a in September and the formal merger of the Saudi and Yemeni wings into a reconstituted AQAP in January 2009. The new organisation included two Saudi returnees from Guantanamo Bay in positions of leadership.

Saud al Shihri and Muhammad al Awfi spent five months in Saudi rehabilitation programmes before re-entering society in May 2008. Their subsequent disappearance and re-emergence in Yemen has complicated US plans to shut the detention facility at Guantanamo and called into question the Saudi counter-radicalisation strategy. More worrying is the web of cross-border linkages that constitute a potent source of multiple insecurities to the Arabian Peninsula. One such connection is the return of combat-hardened veterans from Iraq.

Three of the six suicide bombers who attacked the US Embassy in Sana'a were Iraq veterans who had attended al Qa'eda-run training camps in the governorates of Ma'rib and Hadramawt following their return to Yemen. Their participation raised the spectre of another destabilising wave of militants returning to the Arabian Peninsula, akin to the "Arab Afghans" whose return to Saudi Arabia in 2002 provided the nucleus for the original AQAP campaign of terror.

Militant infiltration and weapons smuggling into Saudi Arabia form a second axis of instability. Even before this latest incident in Jeddah, numerous plots emanating from Yemen had been foiled by security forces in both countries. A third connection directly links the Arabian Peninsula with the Horn of Africa. Thousands of Somali refugees complicate aid and development efforts in southern Yemen and add to the strain on scarce resources. Alongside this, the channelling of militants between Yemen and Somalia and growing cross-border collaboration in attacks in both countries underscore the multifaceted nature of the illicit networks binding the two regions together.

The Somali government claims that Yemen is the primary point of origin for most of the foreign fighters and funding for the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab, as well as the source for the majority of the weapons used by the maritime pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden. The rising incidence of terrorism in Yemen is a symptom of a broader crisis of governance and eroding state capacity and legitimacy facing the Ali Abdullah Saleh government.

The recent resurgence of fighting between security forces and Zaidi followers of the slain cleric Husayn Badr al-Din al-Houthi in the northern governorate of Sa'ada has caused further destabilising flows of internal displacement and cut civilians off from humanitarian and food relief agencies. Applying hard security responses to the failing political economy in Yemen is at most a stopgap measure that does not address the long-term challenges facing the country.

Concerted action at a regional level is required if Yemen is to avoid becoming a nexus for insecurity and the spread of violent extremism between the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. To stand the highest chance of succeeding, any collective approach must adopt a human security strategy based on repairing and strengthening fractured state-society relations and tackling the major underlying socio-political and economic challenges.

Kristian Ulrichsen is the Kuwait research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. foreign.desk@thenational.ae