Situation, Facts and Events

American experts on the growing terrorist threat from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

As American security experts point out, the Islamic State’s (IS) January 3rd double suicide bombing in Kerman, Iran, and the March 22nd assault on the Crocus City Hall venue in Moscow signal the continued threat of officially-directed jihadist attacks, which tend to produce much higher casualty tolls than inspired acts.


The resurgence of IS external operations should serve as a reminder that other militant organizations, particularly Al-Qaeda (AQ), are likewise capable and perhaps determined to carry out international terrorist attacks as well as mobilize supporters into action.


The motivation of such groups to do so has markedly increased since the October 7 Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent military retaliation. 


Al-Qaeda moved quickly to exploit hostile sentiments in the Muslim world resulting from the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Its Yemen branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – which is at the forefront of the campaign as the most aggressive in encouraging violence – has called for attacks by Muslims in the United States and Europe for supporting Israel and encouraged the targeting of Jews living in the West. Since October 7th, AQAP has also disseminated step-by-step video instructions online for bombmaking and placing an explosive device on civilian airliners.


Given its stated intent and history of successful operations in the West, AQAP poses a considerable threat of inspired and directed operations.


Formed in 2009 through a merger of AQ’s Yemeni and Saudi affiliates, by 2010, U.S. officials and analysts considered AQAP the regional AQ branch, posing the greatest terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland, surpassing AQ’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network.


AQAP inspired multiple plots in the United States, including the 2009 Little Rock and Fort Hood shootings, which killed one and 13 people, respectively, as well as the 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomber” and the 2010 Times Square car bombing attempts.


After the shooting at the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people in Paris and the 2019 attack on Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida by a Saudi Air Force aviation student that killed three people, AQAP had pivoted to focus mostly on regional insurgent activities and local governance projects.


Notably, the Pensacola attacker’s Twitter timeline included posts and retweets criticizing US support for Israel’s policies toward Palestine. Moreover, AQAP’s recent emphasis on providing potential attackers with detailed bomb-making and placing instructions, as well as tactical and target-selection guidance, specifically against Western civilian airliners and prominent political and economic figures, represents a new trend.


A United Nations letter made public in January 2024 warned that “AQAP has significantly reinvigorated its media strategy and content, capitalizing on international events including Qur’an burnings [that started in Stockholm, Sweden on January 21, 2023,] and the 7 October attacks to incite lone actors globally” while harboring the “intent to conduct operations in the region and beyond.”


AQAP draws upon its organizational lore and history to glorify those who have carried out inspired attacks in the past, touting them as examples of heroism to emulate. The first post-October 7 video production of its renewed “Inspire” series –specifically purposed to incite supporters to commit acts of violence in the West – was released in late December 2023. The video leverages AQAP’s expertise with improvised explosive devices to provide a detailed step-by-step tutorial on bomb-making and identifying as a priority, civilian airliners belonging to American Airlines, United, Continental Airlines, Delta, British Airways, Easy Jet, Air France, and Air France KLM.


It details how to evade airport security, the most effective places to deploy the explosives, and how to properly prepare and disseminate claims of responsibility “so as to achieve the greatest success.” The narrator insists that supporters learn how to construct “hidden bombs” from the instructional video and study the cases of AQAP-associated individuals such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber” who tried to take down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, and Saudi national Abdullah al-Asiri who in 2009 carried out a suicide bombing against Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef.


The video also gives tactical advice on targeting individuals for attack, encouraging the assassination of high-profile American business and political figures – particularly those who support Israel.


AQAP titled the 46-minute video “Open Source Jihad” which speaks to its savvy in using the Internet to reach and operationally guide its followers. It features clips of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki while lionizing individuals such as the Boston Marathon attackers, the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, the 9/11 perpetrators, and multiple others. Such action is framed as the best way to defend Palestine and free it from Israeli and Western “oppression” and deliver blows to the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” which it accuses of waging “war on Islam.”


Demonstrating the aggressiveness of AQAP’s post-October 7 initiative and its intent to continue fighting the West, a second “Inspire” video was released in early February 2024 that elaborated on the aforementioned narratives. Whereas the former was more focused on technical instruction and operational guidance, the more recent production articulates the religious, ideological, historical, and moral justification for the war against “the Jews, polytheists, Crusaders, and apostates.”


Virtually all definitions of terrorism are grounded in the use of force to coerce an outcome and AQAP points to individuals and campaigns throughout Islamic history to illustrate examples of the “men who carried their lives upon the palms for defending this religion” and undertaking acts of “lone jihad” through which their “operations had great impactive pressure and influence on governments and regimes to change their unjust policies towards our Muslim Ummah.”


The February video features a speech by high-ranking AQ ideologue Abu Hudhayfah al-Sudani, who was involved in past external operations including a foiled plot in Saudi Arabia in 2001 and in Sudan in 2007. Al-Sudani praises Palestinian militants who carry out attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers, referring to the perpetrators as “the heroes of individual jihad.” He insists that killing Jews and Christians is obligatory and says avenging the “oppressed brothers in Palestine” and other Muslim populations must be done through violence using knives, guns, vehicles, and explosives. Al-Sudani asserts these actions are necessary as an extension of the al-Aqsa Flood operation that Hamas committed against Israel on October 7, 2023.


AQAP claims that “the school of individual jihad has revived in America and Western countries” and traces the resurgence back to the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City, through to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo raid, and the 2019 Air Station Pensacola attack.


The video calls for further attacks on “the heads of disbelievers,” civilians, military personnel, politicians, and media figures. It purports that “one of the most important arts of war” is “fighting and terrorizing the governments that show enmity to Islam.”


AQAP followed up on April 3 with an “Inspire Guide” profiling American private military contractors who operated in Yemen, providing details on their whereabouts and urging supporters to assassinate them. Though AQAP is less capable than it once was, due in large part to a relentless U.S. drone campaign waged over many years against its leadership, it once again poses a growing international threat. The branch is capitalizing on the war in Gaza and the hostile sentiments it has stirred up in the Muslim world to focus its propaganda machine on mobilizing supporters to strike Jewish and Western targets.


Moreover, AQ leader Saif al-Adel’s son being dispatched to work with AQAP leadership and its propaganda wing indicates that the revitalized Western-facing campaign is authorized by the organization’s leadership. The UN also noted indications of capabilities transfer and coordination between AQAP and the Yemen-based Houthis, apparently involving drone training activities. Taken together, the danger of violence incited and attacks directed by AQAP is surging once again and should not be taken lightly.


Major Conclusions


Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has been at the forefront of the campaign as the most aggressive in promoting violence, has called for attacks on Muslims in the United States and Europe for supporting Israel and has encouraged attacks on Jews living in the West.

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates quickly moved to exploit the hostility in the Muslim world resulting from Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

AQAP's recent emphasis on providing would-be terrorists with detailed instructions on how to make and deploy bombs, as well as tactical guidance on targeting, especially against Western civilian airliners and prominent political and business figures, represents a new trend.

Although AQAP is less capable than before, in large part due to the relentless US drone campaign waged against its leadership over the years, it once again poses a growing international threat.

Source: Институт Ближнего Востока