By Observer Research Foundation
By Mohammed Sinan Siyech
AQAP: al-Qaeda’s strongest branch
The January 2023 killings of several al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen (in a United States (US) drone strike) refocused the spotlight on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda that remains among the most deadlight sub-unit of the terrorist organisation. First coming to prominence in 1992 when its predecessor al-Qaeda in Yemen attacked US marines and later bombed a US ship in the year 2000, it has been quite effective in its growth. In 2013, the group was responsible for closing down 22 different US embassies across the Middle East and North Africa.
Yet, AQAP’s strength did not emanate from its threat to the US but also from its own efforts and the exploitation of the ongoing Yemeni Civil war. Erupting in 2015 after the fall of the long-time President Abdullah Ali Saleh, the Houthis, a powerful tribal group comprised of Shia Muslims laid siege to Saleh’s successor Abdul Rabi al Hadi for misgovernance in the North of Yemen. Abdul Rabi, supported by some factions of the military and by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia launched counter-offensives against the group in a long war that has been ongoing for the better part of a decade now.
Against this backdrop of civil war in the Northern part of Yemen, al-Qaeda managed to take power in the Southern District of Hadramouth, where a separate struggle for independence has been going on. Sweeping the town of Mukalla in 2015, it managed to successfully govern the city till it was ousted in 2016. This was built off its experience governing Sa’ada, another city in North Yemen that it had taken control of from 2011 to 2012. Yet, apart from the general resilience of the group, it has also been aided by the issue of climate change in Yemen which has caused major issues for the nation.
Yemen’s losing struggle against climate change
Climate change impacts can usually be classified into long-term and short-term effects. In Yemen, both impacts can be charted out. For example, in terms of the long term, Yemen faces huge problems with the water supply. More than 19 million out of its total population of 30 million lack access to clean water. With the increasing temperatures brought on by climate change, this scarcity has only increased in the last decade. As such, various farmers are unable to grow agricultural crops depriving many of their livelihoods and forcing them to cut trees further impacting climate change. As of the last few years, the available water supply for Yemen is about 86 cubic meters per capita, a meagre amount compared to nations like India which have about 1,500 cubic metres of water per capita.
The decline of water and agriculture has also contributed to a severe food insecurity issue in the nation. As of the last few years, more than 8 million people in Yemen did not have access to good sources of food. Not only are many dying because of the same but a large portion of the population is also severely malnourished causing problems such as stunted growth and many other diseases. In addition, the fact that many Yemenis end up growing Qat (a mild narcotic that is quite profitable) in fertile regions further eats into the low presence of agricultural crops, thus, exacerbating the food and water crises.
Apart from the slow onset impacts, climate change also resulted in several emergencies across the region as well. Increased rainfall in some parts of the country have wreaked havoc given that the water fall amounts are so high that they caused flooding, destroying both agricultural lands as well as houses. Just in 2022 alone, aid agencies have reported that at least 70,000 people were displaced or lost properties due to flash floods caused by excessive rains. Other disasters too have been recorded over time such as the cyclone Chapala in 2015 that destroyed several homes and displaced thousands of people in parts of South Yemen. As discussed by climate experts, the cyclone was a product of various weather phenomenon that was caused by climate change over time.
AQAP: Exploiting the crisis.
It is these problems faced by Yemenis that AQAP has understood and tried to exploit. Documents recovered from AQAP in 2013 revealed that the group’s leadership had issued communications to other branches across the region (such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib in North Africa) about the importance of preserving water and supplying it to local populations. When AQAP came to power in the Southern town of Mukalla in 2016, it undertook significant steps to increase the water supply. This included commissioning work on building wells and propping up water infrastructure in the surrounding areas as well. The group was very particular about the success of this activity; it even threatened contractors with death for delays or corruption in this work.
In addition, AQAP also used the food insecurity of the region to its advantage. First, it launched campaigns across several Yemeni towns where it distributed food to the local population in the mid-2010s and then advertised these activities on various social media platforms to increase awareness. In addition, among its recruitment messages, it often emphasised that recruits would be taken care of financially so that they would be able to help offset the rising cost of food (among other commodities).
Lastly, AQAP has also previously used climate-related emergencies to its advantage. For example, during the 2015 Cyclone Chapala, AQAP was involved in arranging for the evacuation of various citizens affected by the cyclone. In addition, the members were also quite adept at emergency relief activities including relocating people and providing them with essential services such as food and water.
AQAP has demonstrated its ability to deal with the most basic problems that many Yemenis face and has used opportunities caused by climate change to win hearts and minds and ensure that it gains some popular support. Policymakers looking into the problem should realise that the group’s recruits are comprised of all sorts of people including those pushed into joining the group due to the various problems that beset the people of Yemen.
With reports of several attacks that have taken place in the country over the last few years and with recent propaganda that criticised Saudi Arabia and its de-facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman, it is also clear that AQAP still poses a significant threat to local and international targets. Against this backdrop, every factor underpinning the group’s popularity must be understood before it is possible to dismantle the group and climate change-related impacts are definitely one of these root causes.