CTP’s Threat Update series is a weekly update and assessment of the al Qaeda network. The al Qaeda network update includes detailed assessments of al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and the Maghreb and Sahel. CTP’s Iran team follows developments on the internal politics, military capabilities, and regional conflicts closely.
Below are the top three takeaways from the week:
1. Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri called for jihadists to prioritize the fight against the United States and its allies and rejected the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in a 14-minute audio message released on January 5. He reiterated major themes from al Qaeda’s strategic doctrine, including the group’s position as a defender of oppressed Muslim populations. Zawahiri’s address continues a series of statements intended to rebut ISIS and reinforce al Qaeda’s role as the vanguard of the global Salafi-jihadi movement.
2. The Saudi-led coalition is supporting an offensive intended to capture key sites in Yemen’s Taiz governorate and increase military pressure on al Houthi-Saleh forces. Internationally recognized Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government launched “Operation Golden Spear” on January 7 in an effort to drive al Houthi-Saleh forces away from the strategic Bab al Mandeb Strait. The coalition-backed forces likely intend to pressure the al Houthi-Saleh faction militarily in an effort to expedite a politically negotiated settlement. They also seek to secure the Bab al Mandab Strait by removing the al Houthi-Saleh presence from southwestern Yemen. A cessation of hostilities is unlikely to hold while local conflicts remain unresolved, however.
3. Salafi-jihadi groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda, are taking advantage of heightened civil conflict in Libya to reset conditions and prepare for attacks. Libyan actors, including U.S. partners, are dedicating limited security resources to political objectives at the expense of counterterrorism operations. ISIS and al Qaeda-linked militants broke out of besieged neighborhoods in Benghazi, raising the risk of attacks on military targets and oil infrastructure throughout Libya. ISIS militants are also gathering in western Libya, where the group is preparing for future operations to disrupt the Libyan state. Al Qaeda-linked militants have also signaled preparations for attacks in the near term.
AEI’s Critical Threats Project
Update and Assessment
January 10, 2017
TOP THREE TAKEAWAYS
1. Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri called for jihadists to prioritize the fight
against the U.S. and reiterated his rejection of ISIS’s ideology.
2. Saudi-led coalition-backed Yemeni forces began an offensive to capture key
sites in Taiz and increase military pressure on al Houthi-Saleh forces.
3. Salafi-jihadi groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda, are taking advantage of
heightened civil conflict in Libya to reset conditions and prepare for attacks.
| ASSESSMENTAL QAEDA
Al Qaeda Network
Al Qaeda central leadership continues to prioritize targeting the U.S. and its allies. Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri
identified conducting jihad against the U.S. and its allies as al Qaeda’s “top priority” on January 5 in his first speech since
September 2016. Zawahiri argued that targeting the U.S. is practical because the U.S. is the present-day manifestation of
evil. Al Qaeda leadership seeks to frame the organization as a more moderate alternative to the Islamic State in Iraq and al
Sham (ISIS) while maintaining its role as the leader of the global Salafi-jihadi movement. Zawahiri rebuked ISIS leader Abu
Bakr al Baghdadi and reiterated his denial of accusations levied against al Qaeda by ISIS. Zawahiri also emphasized the
need for Muslims to join together against a “Zionist, Crusader, secular, Safavid [Iranian], Chinese, and Hindu” conspiracy,
highlighting al Qaeda’s global aims and unifying mission. Al Qaeda rhetoric prior to Zawahiri’s speech focused on using the
fall of Aleppo, Syria, as a global call for Muslims to join jihad.
The U.S. Department of State designated Hamza bin Laden, son of deceased al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden, as a
Specially Designated Global Terrorist. The younger bin Laden advocated for lone-wolf attacks targeting the West in May
2016 and called for Muslims to travel to Yemen to fight with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) against the Saudi-
led coalition in August 2016.
Outlook: Al Qaeda will not attempt a directed attack against the U.S. homeland in the near term, but will instead target
American interests abroad and continue to infiltrate local conflicts throughout the Muslim world in order to develop a strong
| ASSESSMENT:GULF OF ADEN YEMEN
Russia is seeking to increase its influence in Yemen. Internationally recognized Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour
Hadi’s Foreign Minister announced that 200 billion Russian-printed Yemeni riyals arrived in Aden on January 6. The Hadi
government will use the money to pay government salaries in an attempt to quell anti-government sentiment in southern
Yemen. Emirati involvement in southern Yemen’s security sparked backlash in Hadramawt governorate. Civilians protested
Emirati-backed counterterrorism forces’ alleged arbitrary detention of Hadhrami men at al Mukalla airport on January 9.
Outlook: Russia will attempt to leverage its assistance to the Hadi government to expand its role in the peace process.
Hadi government forces launched “Operation Golden Spear,” an operation to drive al Houthi-Saleh forces away from the
Bab al Mandeb Strait. The forces receive support from the Saudi-led coalition. They are gaining momentum after success in
Dhubab district and now intend to extend the offensive to Mokha city and al Wazi’iyah district. The offensive is likely
intended to secure the Bab al Mandab Strait, increase military pressure on the al Houthi-Saleh faction, and change the
terms of the political process in Yemen.
Outlook: Hadi government forces will consolidate gains in southern Taiz governorate but will face strong resistance at
Mokha and Taiz city.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS in Yemen
AQAP operations are rolling back gains made by security forces in southern Yemen in mid-2016. AQAP militants repelled
Emirati-backed al Hizam security forces attempting to secure Shaqra area, a strategic crossroads in southern Abyan
governorate. Al Hizam security forces withdrew from several checkpoints in Abyan, citing insufficient resources due to a
high rate of AQAP attacks.
Outlook: Counter-AQAP operations will not advance while Yemeni actors prioritize resources for the Yemeni civil war.
| SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY:GULF OF ADEN YEMEN
1) 04 JAN: AQAP
militants ambushed al
Hizam forces in
2) 05 JAN: Al Hizam
forces interdicted ISIS
3) 05 JAN: AQAP
militants attacked an
training camp in
central al Bayda.
4) 05 JAN: Al Houthi-
near the Bab al
5) 09 JAN: Hadi
Golden Spear in Taiz. 2
The semi-autonomous region of Puntland and Galmudug State signed a fragile ceasefire agreement that is unlikely to hold
in the long term. The agreement strives to end violence stemming from contested control over Galkayo city in Mudug region,
which is divided between the northern Puntland zone and southern Galmudug zone. Al Shabaab has capitalized on the
conflict by conducting attacks in Galkayo and expanding operational capabilities into Puntland. The Galmudug regional
parliament impeached Galmudug Administration President Abdikarim Hussein Guled on January 10, exacerbating tensions.
Outlook: The ceasefire will likely collapse in Galkayo in the coming months.
African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces and Somali security forces are failing to consolidate gains in southern
Somalia. Ethiopian AMISOM troops and Jubbaland troops captured two villages from al Shabaab near Kismayo in Lower
Jubba region on January 7. AMISOM and Jubbaland forces withdrew the next day, however. Al Shabaab then returned to
the towns. The U.S. conducted an airstrike to defend AMISOM and Somali forces from an al Shabaab attack.
Outlook: Al Shabaab will exploit AMISOM’s tactical weaknesses to maintain territorial control in the Lower Jubba region.
Al Shabaab is maintaining a high operational tempo in Mogadishu in an effort to undermine the Somali federal government,
Somali security forces, and international actors. Al Shabaab detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device
(VBIED) inside a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) compound on January 4. Al Shabaab militants also
attacked a government militia barracks in the Almada area on the outskirts of Mogadishu on January 6. Al Shabaab’s
spokesman emphasized the tactical value of targeting hotels in the Waberi district in Mogadishu, which is frequented by
Somali government and military officials.
Outlook: Al Shabaab will escalate targeted attacks on international organizations and military installations in Mogadishu.
GULF OF ADEN HORN OF AFRICA
| SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY:GULF OF ADEN HORN OF AFRICA
1) 04 JAN: Al
Shabaab detonated a
VBIED at a UNDP
2) 07 JAN: Somali
arrested a senior al
in Wanlaweyn, Lower
3) 07 JAN: A U.S.
airstrike targeted al
Shabaab militants in
Lower Jubba region.
4) 07 JAN: Alleged
conducted a grenade
attack in Mogadishu.
5) 08 JAN: Al
two towns in Lower
Internal divisions are weakening the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). GNA PM Fayez al Serraj is losing
political capital as other GNA members resign or blatantly disregard his authority. Tunisia- and Algeria-led peace efforts aim
to reconcile the GNA and the rival House of Representatives (HoR) by amending the Libyan Political Agreement. The HoR,
supported by Libyan National Army (LNA) strongman Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, continues to resist amendment efforts.
The HoR has turned to Russia instead for support.
Outlook: Regional and international actors will push for a revised peace process that empowers Field Marshal Haftar.
Rising tensions between Libya’s most powerful armed actors, the LNA and the Misratan militias, are diverting security
resources away from counterterrorism operations. Misratan militias, including some units that fought ISIS with U.S. support,
are aligning with al Qaeda-linked groups against the LNA in central Libya. Misratan forces have also complained of
inadequate support from the GNA, the current U.S. counterterrorism partner in Libya. The LNA declared a no-fly zone in the
contested region between Sirte, Sebha, and Brega cities in central Libya.
Outlook: The LNA and Misratan forces may escalate from airstrikes to direct clashes over strategic sites in central Libya.
Ansar al Sharia and Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in Libya
Salafi-jihadi militants are taking advantage of heightened civil conflict to reset conditions in Libya. ISIS and al Qaeda-linked
militants broke out of besieged neighborhoods in Benghazi on January 6 after clashes with the LNA. ISIS militants from
Benghazi may be moving toward western Libya, where ISIS is massing forces in preparation for future operations. Islamist
coalitions with ties to al Qaeda associate Ansar al Sharia reaffirmed their support for Libyan Grand Mufti Sadiq al Ghariani,
likely indicating preparation for coordinated efforts against the LNA.
Outlook: ISIS will conduct explosive attacks in population centers or raids on oil or water infrastructure to disrupt security.
WEST AFRICA LIBYA
| SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY:WEST AFRICA LIBYA
1) 04 JAN: LNA
airstrikes struck an
airbase occupied by
Misratan forces in
Hun, al Jufra.
2) 04 JAN: LNA
militants in al Zahir al
Hamr, Derna district.
3) 05 JAN: Suspected
ISIS militants attacked
a water infrastructure
site in Souf al Jin.
4) 05 JAN: ISIS
besieged areas in
5) 06 JAN: The LNA
seized ISIS vehicles
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS in the Maghreb
Returning foreign fighters from Libya, Iraq, and Syria may threaten stability in the Maghreb. Protesters demonstrated against
the return of Tunisian militants on January 8. Tunisia’s president said in late 2016 that the government cannot ban returning
Tunisian foreign fighters from the country, sparking a month of protests in the capital. Algeria declared a state of emergency
near the Tunisian border on January 6, citing the risk of Tunisia-based militants infiltrating domestic protests.
Outlook: Returning foreign fighters will strengthen existing Salafi-jihadi networks in the Maghreb.
Associated Movements in the Sahel (Ansar al Din, al Murabitoun, Boko Haram)
Abu Walid al Sahrawi, a former AQIM militant leader who pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, may have renounced his
pledge. If confirmed, al Sahrawi’s turn would reinforce AQIM’s position as the dominant militant group in West Africa.
Peace accords remain intact in Gao city, central Mali. Local militias and the Coordination for the Movement of the Azawad
(CMA), a Tuareg separatist group, reached an agreement to allow the CMA to re-enter the city following a standoff. Gao
remains a vulnerable target for Salafi-jihadi militants. Gunmen shot and killed an International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC) work in Gao on January 4, less than two weeks after suspected Salafi-jihadi militants kidnapped a French aid worker
in the city.
The two main Boko Haram factions are pursuing different strategies to achieve their goal of establishing an Islamic state in
northeastern Nigeria. Abu Bakr Shekau’s Boko Haram faction seeks to discredit the Nigerian government’s ability to protect
its citizens by targeting civilians in population centers with female suicide bombers. The ISIS-recognized faction led by Abu
Musab Barnawi prioritizes attacking the Nigerian state directly. It conducts small-arms attacks targeting Nigerian troops in
remote military outposts and may be conducting an assassination campaign against Nigerian Army officers.
Outlook: Joint patrols will resume in Gao, but tensions will remain high. Shekau’s faction will prioritize explosive attacks in
northern Nigerian population centers, while Barnawi’s faction will attack military targets near Lake Chad.
WEST AFRICA MAGHREB AND SAHEL
| SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY:WEST AFRICA MAGHREB
1) 03 JAN: Tunisian
security forces arrested
13 people linked to the
Uqba ibn Nafa’a
Brigade in Hergla,
2) 04 JAN: Moroccan
police dispersed an
anti-police sit-in in al
3) 06 JAN: Algeria
declared a state of
emergency in the al
Maa al Abyad and al
4) 08 JAN:
protested against the
return of Tunisian
foreign fighters in
| SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY:WEST AFRICA SAHEL
1) 04 JAN: Militants
shot and killed an
ICRC worker in Gao
2) 06 JAN: Gunmen
attacked a checkpoint
in Ansongo, Gao
3) 07 JAN: Boko
Haram conducted a
4) 08 JAN: Boko
Haram militants killed
a Nigerian military
officer in a raid on a
base near Buni Yadi,
Yobe State, Nigeria.
African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)
al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)
Coordination for the Movement of the Azawad (CMA)
Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Group (GATIA)
Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)
Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA)
Libyan National Army (LNA)
Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA)
United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)
Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna (MSCD)
National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA)
The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)
Somalia National Army (SNA)
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
al Qaeda analyst
For more information about AEI’s Critical Threats Project, visit www.criticalthreats.org.
Frederick W. Kagan