Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen is great news for al Qaeda
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Neither the Saudi-led coalition nor the Houthi Shiite rebels are winning the war in Yemen. Who is? Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yes, the same terrorist group that senior U.S. officials once listed as the "most dangerous" threat to domestic and international American interests. As a U.S.-led coalition of 65 nations degrades the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across nine lines of effort, the war in Yemen continues to strain the resources of various Arab air forces, with some Gulf states temporarily withdrawing from counter-ISIS sorties in order to support the war in Yemen. The results have not been in Saudi Arabia's favor; Yemeni civilian casualties are high, coalition troops continue to be attacked by advanced weaponry, and the fragile state in the Arabian Peninsula continues to plunge into a desolate chaos.


It's everything AQAP has ever wanted. Worrisome of what the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the agreement to halt Iran's enrichment of uranium — will mean for the region, Riyadh is focused on checking Tehran's influence in southwest Asia. The coalition's primary objective is to root Iran's proxy, the Houthis, from power after the rebels sent Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi into exile in early 2015 — except it isn't working. The weak power projection of Hadi's government forces and the Houthis' resolve in the north are allowing for swathes of central and eastern Yemen to essentially be ungoverned areas, which is ripe for al Qaeda's expansion. With neither a functioning government in Sanaa to provide services and a coalition that is undoubtedly failing to drive their Iranian-backed opponents out of power, Yemen has once again become a safe haven for AQAP and, to a dramatically lesser extent, ISIS militants.

Western media agencies are exclusively focused on the anti-ISIS coalition, and with legitimate reason after ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. However, the difference between ISIS and al Qaeda is that while the former has to hold territory to ensure its legitimacy, the latter does not and can survive as a fluid, transregional entity. It's important to note that while ISIS focuses on holding territory in light of an international air campaign (even fortifying itself through tunnel networks) AQAP is hell-bent on striking Western targets. One mustn't look any further than the failed bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, intercepted printer bombs found in cargo airliners in October 2010, foiled plots against several U.S. diplomatic facilities in August 2013, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France in January 2015 to understand AQAP's sophistication and desire to attack the West. The withdrawal of 125 U.S. special operations forces from Yemen degrades any sort of counterterrorism capabilities against AQAP, especially considering a mass prison break freed over 300 inmates, including a top AQAP regional commander. This group is left to thrive and yet again become a formidable foe as regional players turn their attention to combating the Houthis.

Although al Qaeda may appear to be out of the limelight as ISIS seeks to monopolize the global jihadist movement, the rise of ISIS might even embolden al Qaeda. Just recently, al-Shabaab warned ISIS to back off in Somalia, al Mourabitoun and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) launched a coordinated assault on a Western hotel in Mali, and "probably the largest" al Qaeda training camp was destroyed in Afghanistan — 14 years into a NATO-led war to eradicate their safe havens.

Both groups, ISIS and AQAP, put out slick propaganda e-magazines: Dabiq and Inspire, respectfully. Boasting techniques on how to create do-it-yourself improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and encouraging attacks in the West, ISIS and al Qaeda may use the West as a battleground to settle their rivalry. The worry here is that as coalition airstrikes degrade ISIS safe havens and the group shifts its strategy to undertake external operations like the ones in Paris, the Sinai Peninsula and Beirut, then al Qaeda will see this as a cue to stay relevant in the global jihadist movement. Significantly degraded in Afghanistan by NATO and in Somalia by AMISOM, al Qaeda sees a golden opportunity to exploit the war in Yemen as the international community focuses its attention elsewhere.

President Obama labelled the fight against al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia as success stories just six months prior to the start of Saudi Arabia's air campaign. If this is any indication of how dynamic the threat posed by al Qaeda can be in such a short timeframe, the U.S. needs to reinterpret its fight against AQAP from a success story to another new chapter in irregular warfare.

Glavin is a researcher at the United States Naval War College’s Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups (CIWAG). The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of CIWAG, the Naval War College, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.