As I've often said before, some of the most interesting stories to come across my desk are those from abroad that the U.S. mainstream media has failed to pick up. A recent article by Norwegian news outlet Verdens Gang (VG) only reminded me of that fact when it reported it had been in contact with an unidentified member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The piece, written by Erlend Ofte Arntsen, raised some interesting points — not least of which was the suggestion that the Yemeni al Qaeda franchise has set aside its mission of conducting attacks in the West.
VG reporter Erlend Ofte Arntsen connected with the anonymous AQAP member through an intermediary at al-Masra newspaper, a publication that belongs to Ansar al-Sharia Yemen. AQAP has historically used the name "Ansar al-Sharia" in its local endeavors in an attempt to hide their links to al Qaeda and promote them as mainstream. Because of this, an al-Masra employee would be a logical channel through which to meet a person claiming to be an AQAP leader.
Arntsen's outreach was motivated by one goal: to track a Norwegian jihadist, Cameroon Ostensvig Dale. Dale has reportedly traveled to Yemen several times since 2008, and in 2011 he allegedly moved to Yemen to become a bombmaker for AQAP. Three years later, the U.S. State Department named him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
The State Department, along with the Norwegian Police Security Service, told Arntsen in recent interviews that they think Dale is still alive and living in Yemen. But the reporter's AQAP contact denied having any knowledge of Dale's whereabouts. The brush-off is hardly surprising; if Dale were still working with the group, it wouldn't be eager to aid those hoping to track him down and arrest or kill him.
After all, airstrikes are a persistent concern for AQAP, which has lost several of its senior leaders — including AQAP founder Nasir al-Wahayshi — to U.S. operations. Moreover, Washington has picked up its air raids against AQAP in Yemen since U.S. President Donald Trump came into office in January. According to the Department of Defense, the United States conducted 70 airstrikes against the jihadist group between Feb. 28 and April 2 — a staggering figure, considering the Long War Journal puts the highest number of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen during a single year at 41, in 2009. In just over a month, then, the United States nearly doubled its record, and it has launched at least nine more airstrikes since April 3. The unprecedented uptick in operations over Yemen comes on the heels of a commando raid against an AQAP site in Bayda province on Jan. 29 that left one Navy Seal dead, as well as several AQAP members and a number of civilians. The mission also, however, reportedly netted a substantial amount of intelligence.
The jihadist group's bombmakers are particularly high on Washington's target list because of their involvement in a string of attacks against U.S. aircraft. So it is certainly possible that men like Dale are deep in hiding, their locations unknown even to many of their fellow AQAP members. In theory, Dale could have also been killed over the past few months in an airstrike, though AQAP would likely have eulogized him rather than deny knowing his whereabouts. The AQAP source may have been being honest about losing touch with Dale as well: In 2015, a group of jihadists broke away from AQAP to form an Islamic State franchise in Yemen, and it is possible Dale was among them.
Tribal Allies Over Western Foes?
Perhaps the more interesting part of Arntsen's article, however, was the AQAP leader's claim that his group was no longer targeting the West. According to the anonymous interviewee, AQAP has entered into an agreement with local tribal leaders to refrain from launching any new attacks in the West in exchange for shelter.
At first glance this might seem to be an outlandish deal, but taken in context, it's actually quite sensible. For one, AQAP has worked long and hard to gain the support of Yemen's tribes, and in many ways it has set the example for doing so with other al Qaeda spinoffs in Tunisia, Libya and Syria. In fact, in several cases, AQAP leaders are either members of the tribes themselves — as Anwar al-Awlaki was — or marry into them. Moreover, by using cover names such as Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP has strived to portray itself as a more moderate jihadist alternative to the Islamic State. Even when it has seized control of territory, the group has refrained from imposing harsh forms of Sharia; instead, it often educates and provides social services to the local population. Though its efforts haven't always gone over well — in Mukalla, for instance, residents rejoiced when AQAP was driven out of the city — it has seen greater success among the more conservative tribes in Yemen's hinterlands. Hoping to strengthen these bonds, AQAP has even sent fighters to help the tribes fend off offensives by Houthi rebels and troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
AQAP's presence hasn't been entirely beneficial to the tribes, though. With the jihadists have come the airstrikes against them, which have left several tribal leaders connected to the group dead. It's no surprise, then, that the tribes have asked AQAP to avoid attracting more attention from the United States. Nor is it unusual that the group chose its tribal links over its Western enemies; al Qaeda as a whole typically follows the model of "bin Ladenism," which views the jihadist struggle as a long war. This ideology holds that it is impossible to establish an authentic Islamic polity under the laws of Sharia until the United States and its allies are driven from the Islamic world.
The first step in this model of protracted insurgency is to draw the West into conflicts in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden sought to do this by launching attacks against its institutions — first the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, then the 9/11 attacks — and clearly succeeded. The United States and its coalition partners are now active participants in combating jihadist insurgencies from the Sahel to the Sulu Archipelago. As a result, al Qaeda has shifted most of its attention to strengthening and equipping its local branches and foreign partners, rather than carrying out spectacular attacks overseas. Judging the group's efficacy will therefore take more than simply assessing its ability to conduct successful operations in the West.
Falling on Deaf Ears
As AQAP works to solidify its base of operations and influence in Yemen, the country's civil war has shown no sign of letting up. On April 18, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis called for a U.N.-brokered deal to bring the conflict to an end. But even if such a bargain could be struck, there are still many political rifts in Yemen that have yet to be healed — even among allies. For instance, the Houthis are currently aligned with Saleh's supporters against the government of embattled President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, but they are uneasy bedfellows at best. Saleh, for his part, led several wars against the Houthis during his presidency, and popular support for the Houthis is waning in Sanaa as humanitarian and economic conditions throughout the country worsen.
Hadi's government isn't faring much better. His supporters are currently working with al-Islah (the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) and several factions of the Southern Movement — two groups with very different interests, and only their hatred of the Houthis and Saleh in common. Meanwhile, the Islamic State's branches in Yemen continue to serve as wild cards as they attack mosques that do not preach their version of Islam, along with an array of secular targets.
Considering Yemen will remain mired in chaos for some time yet, AQAP could prove a valuable ally to the country's tribes as they look to protect their interests and territories. But that will be true only if the group doesn't draw more airstrikes and commando raids, which may explain why AQAP appears to be trying to signal its intention to stand down against the West now. There's no guarantee, however, that the new U.S. administration will weigh this message as reason enough to stop pounding the group. And amid reports of five new airstrikes in Yemen over the past three days, Washington has given no indication that it plans to ease up on its AQAP enemies.