UN Report 2022: Al Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen


August 5, 2022

Kyle Orton


Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “remains the most important Al-Qaeda affiliate for the dissemination of propaganda”, says the Monitoring Team, and “poses a persistent threat in Yemen, across the region and abroad, where the group aspires to revive an international operational capability”. Despite the loss of its overall military commander, Salih bin Salim bin Ubayd Abolan (Abu Umayr al-Hadhrami), in January 2022, AQAP “maintains strongholds” in Marib, Abyan, and Shabwa, “where most leaders and fighters are located”, with a smaller presence in Hadramawt, Mahra, and Jawf. Most AQAP members are Yemenis, according to the report, “supplemented by small numbers of foreign terrorist fighters”. AQAP also replenishes the ranks by freeing its operatives from prisons, the report notes, most recently in Hadramawt in April. Jihadist prison-breaks are a long-standing problem in Yemen.

One Member State says that AQAP runs itself through a series of committees, with Sa’ad bin Atef al-Awlaki overseeing the military committee and other leaders controlling the “security, legal, medical, and media committees”, though “[t]he finance committee has been disbanded owing to leadership losses”. AQAP makes its money from “kidnapping for ransom, looting and robbery, in addition to remittances from overseas relatives of AQAP members”, according to the report. In terms of its offensive capacity, as well as the Hadramawt jailbreak, AQAP is alleged to be working on “maritime operations” and has undertaken “small-scale operations” against Iran’s Ansarallah (Huthis), “primarily” in Bayda and Marib.

But here is where it gets very interesting: “one Member State reported collaboration between AQAP and Houthi forces, with the latter sheltering some AQAP members and releasing prisoners in return for AQAP undertaking proxy terrorist operations and providing operational training to certain Houthi fighters.”

It had been known for many years that AQAP had a problem with (particularly Saudi) spies, something AQAP openly admitted in late 2018. A year later, AQAP offered a public amnesty for spies who confessed and repented. Less well-known is that Al-Qaeda in Yemen has had a cooperative relationship with the Huthis back to the 1990s, when Al-Qaeda forged its relations more broadly with the Iranian theocracy; their mutual hatred of Saudi Arabia was and is a binding agent. Dr. Elisabeth Kendall pointed out two years ago that there is ample evidence—visible in outline if not in detail—of states, specifically Iran, manipulating and even fabricating jihadist operations under the AQAP label, which at this stage “has started to lose meaning”—complicating the Monitoring Team’s estimate that AQAP has “a few thousand fighters”. (It is a similar story with IS in Yemen: see below).

What is happening with AQAP is not an isolated phenomenon. Al-Qaeda’s designation as a “non-state” actor was always a bit blurry, given its role in Sudan up to 1996 and its attachment to Pakistan’s Taliban in Afghanistan after that. At the present time, states probably have more influence and even control over Al-Qaeda than ever before. This is particularly true of the affiliates, whether it is the ab initio questions about Algeria’s secret police in West Africa or the Iranian inroads in Somalia.

For all of AQAP’s problems—leadership decapitation, infiltration, fragmentation—the Monitoring Team reports that its strategy of exploiting the conflict to gain local acceptance is still working: it has been able to “embed with local tribes and thereby gain supporters”. And AQAP has been buoyed by the Taliban-Qaeda takeover in Afghanistan, which imparted to jihadists the lesson that setbacks can be overcome; all that is needed is patience.


The Islamic State in Yemen (ISY) has “battlefield experience [which] suggests that they remain a potential threat, but a lack of resources and leadership would inhibit any resurgence in the near term”, says the Monitoring Team. “The value of Yemen to [IS] may reside in the presence of the Umm al-Qura office of the general directorate of provinces and facilitation and financial links across the Red Sea to the Al-Karrar office in Somalia.” There are indications from one Member State that ISY has found some purchase in the local population, having “assimilated into various tribal forces in the country and been reintegrated into the overall Yemeni conflict.” Nonetheless, ISY “is considered to be overshadowed in Yemen by AQAP”: ISY has “not conducted any recent attacks” and “is on a downward trajectory”. This is to say the least of it.

As outlined above in the AQAP section, discerning who is doing what, why, and for whom is extremely difficult in the Yemeni context where allegiances are fluid and even the firmly committed actors cannot always be sure whose “grand design” they are involved in. Where the report at least inclines at the evidence that AQAP is being manipulated by states, there is no mention of this factor when it comes to ISY, where the evidence is probably stronger. The re-emergence of ISY in mid-2018, after it had been severely degraded by U.S. airstrikes, was a strange piece of business, as Dr. Kendall documented in great detail. During the 2018-20 period, ISY ceased attacks on the Huthis, the local manifestation of the Iranian Revolution, and instead “maniacally focused on provoking AQAP into open conflict”, writes Kendall, which succeeded: “both ISY and AQAP focused almost exclusively on killing each other.” There were some strong indicators that ISY was collaborating with the Huthis/Iran, and circumstantial evidence that “parts of both ISY and AQAP have been instrumentalized by regional rivals”, concluded Kendall.

Al Qaeda in Yemen and ISIS in Yemen were published by Kyle Orton, on July 30 as part of a full analysis explaining the UN Report on Al Qaeda and ISIS terror organizations. The full report can be read here Reduced, But Rebuilding: United Nations Reports on Islamic State and Al-Qaeda