Ever since the first issue of Inspire magazine, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language publication, released in late June 2010, Samir Khan became a household name in the counterterrorism community. His work in the jihadi community, though, started a decade earlier in the streets of New York City.

Khan, who was reportedly killed in an airstrike in Yemen on Friday, Sept. 30, alongside his mentor, Anwar al-Awlaki, was not a religious authority. But he helped create the media architecture of the American online jihadi community, an Internet incubator for radicalization.

Read the rest here.

Last week, Ansar al-Shari’ah, (Supporters of Shari’ah), based in Yemen, released its first video titled “The Opening [Conquests] of Zinjibar.” Since mid-April, many analysts and scholars have wondered where this apparently new group came from, who its members were, and what connections it has to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The name Ansar al-Shari’ah was first mentioned in an unofficial audio release by AQAP’s leading shari’ah official, Shaykh Abu Zubayr ‘Adil bin ‘Abdullah al-Abab, who conducted a question and answer session with online global jihadi activists through PalTalk in Ghorfah Minbar al-Ansar (Pulpit Room of the Supporters). The first question was “What is the general situation of the mujahidin in Yemen and the status of the Shabab Ansar al-Shari’ah?” al-Abab responded that when they recruit new members to AQAP, they first introduce themselves under the banner of Ansar al-Shari’ah. But why would they need to do that? Has the AQ brand really become that tarnished? And is Ansar al-Shari’ah really AQAP?

Some have been skeptical of links between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah. While conclusive evidence is lacking, there are several strong indicators. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s first video release, which was not published by AQAP’s media outlet al-Malahim (the Epics), highlighted “martyrs” who were also eulogized in the most recent issue of AQAP’s Inspire Magazine — Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, ‘Ali bin Salih bin Jalal and ‘Amar ‘Abadah al-Wa’ili. Although this is not proof of collusion, there clearly seems to be some overlap. Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.

We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The name game isn’t new. al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) attempted to rehabilitate its image following the death of its leader,  the notorious butcher Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. AQI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) as a way of rebranding itself because many Iraqis were repulsed by the organization’s overuse of violence, as well as the perception that it was made up of foreigners. The latter is also the reason they announced Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, a purported Iraqi, as their new leader, although it has been disputed whether he was actually a real person. In the years since, the name change has not done much for AQI’s credibility. It remains a threat, but is a shadow of its former self.

Another place where naming is an issue is in Somalia, where Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (The Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth) has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden but has not changed its name to become an al-Qa’ida franchise. Leah Farrall recently wrote an excellent overview on this topic in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel. Although it is a great addition to the literature, there were also other explanations for the lack of formal name change. Reportedly, al-Qa’ida itself opposed the name change because it did not want al-Shabab to sully its so-called “street cred” by using its polarizing brand. It is difficult to ascertain whether these reports are credible. But the very discussion shows the growing pitfalls of the al-Qa’ida brand.

All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership. It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.[1]

Even if the brand name is discredited, AQ’s ideas still resonate with many, especially if it can be repackaged for local contexts, as in the apparent case of AQAP. As we have seen in the past, AQ is a very nimble organization that learns, evolves, and quickly adapts to a rapidly changing “battlefield.” It would be wise for our policy makers and government officials to heed these subtle changes in its counterterrorism strategies. Otherwise, we are fighting an imaginary enemy, one that only exists in our minds or that existed in 2001 or 2008, but not in 2011.


[1] Ansar or the supporters played an important role in early Islamic history when the Muslim prophet Muhammad was still preaching and calling people to Islam. Ansar were the individuals in Medina that helped Muhammad and his followers following its hijra from Mecca. Therefore, the use of the term Ansar acts as a strong link to the past that appeals to the average Muslim. Further, when attaching it to the Shari’ah, which has primacy in the lives of religious Muslims, Ansar al-Shari’ah becomes a catchy and useful name that is stronger in Islamic terms than Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The video was first previewed a few weeks ago on the forums and was covered by IntelWire’s J.M. Berger. The above title is in reference to the Qur’ānic verse 3:187 (HT Online Jihad):

“And remember Allah took a covenant from the People of the Book, to make it known and clear to mankind, and not to hide it; but they threw it away behind their backs, and purchased with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain they made!”

Unfortunately, the asbāb al-nuzūl (occasions of revelation) for this verse is not explained by al-Wāḥidī. That said, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide some tafāsīr (Qur’ānic exegesis) from some leading Muslim mufassirūn (those who conduct Qur’ānic exegesis) in Islamic history with regard to the above verse, which might provide added layer to our understanding of why al ‘Awlaqī decided to use it as his title:


That is, they [The Jews and Christians] did not act by the Book, and purchased with it some miserable gain, that is, they bought in exchange for the everlasting Hereafter, the goods of this transitory world.


And, mention, when God made covenant with those who had been given the Scripture, that is, the pledge [taken] from them in the Torah, ‘You shall expound it (read tubayyinunnahu, or yubayyinunnahu, ‘they shall expound it’) the Book, to people, and not conceal it’ (read taktumūnahu, ‘you shall not conceal it’, or yaktumūnahu, ‘they shall not conceal it’). But they rejected it, they discarded the covenant, behind their backs, and so they did not act in accordance with it, and bought with it, they took in its place, a small price, of this world from the debased among them, enjoying supremacy over them in knowledge, and they concealed it, lest it [the supremacy] escape them; how evil is what they have bought, [how evil is] this purchase of theirs!

Ibn ‘Abbās:

Then Allah mentioned His covenant with the people of the Book in the Scripture, which required them to exposit the traits and description of His Prophet, saying: (And (remember) when Allah laid a charge on those who had received the Scripture) i.e. the Torah and the Gospel ((He said): Ye are to expound it) the trait and description of Muhammad (to mankind and not to hide it) not to hide these traits and description of Muhammad in their Scripture. (But they flung it behind their backs) and did not act upon it (and bought thereby a little gain) a paltry acquisition in their means of living by hiding the traits and description of Muhammad in their Scripture. (Verily evil is that which they have gained thereby) evil is that which they have chosen for themselves: Judaism and the concealment of the traits and description of Muhammad.

Ibn Kathīr:

(And remember) when Allah took a covenant from those who were given the Scripture (Jews and Christians) to make it (the truth) known and clear to mankind, and not to hide it, but they threw it away behind their backs, and purchased with it some miserable gain! And indeed worst is that which they bought.)

On the less esoteric front, one would be remiss not to mention that al ‘Awlaqī’s new video is not produced by al-Qā’idah in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) media outlet al-Malāḥim. Does this prove my point that he is not all that important to AQAP? I am always up for eating humble pie and though I still believe my argument is valid my colleague who goes under the pseudonym Mr. Orange’s War Tracker makes what I think is a valid counter-argument: “I’d say it’s the other way round. al ‘Awlaqī doesn’t need AQAP. And it’s still possible that he doesn’t even belong to their lot.” If his argument ends up being correct, as I responded to him, it could suggest that al ‘Awlaqī is trying to set himself up as a figure similar to Abū Muḥmmad al-Maqdisī. Interestingly, his speech is in Arabic and not English. Much of al ‘Awlaqī’s material in the past has been in English, as such, it could be argued that al ‘Awlaqī is trying to become more available to an Arab audience as well as gain more legitimacy. At the same time, al ‘Awlaqī calls for his video to be translated into English, therefore, he is trying to satiate his cult-like followers in the English-speaking world as well.

In the past month, Yemen has returned to the spotlight. The CIA now believes that the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a larger security threat to the United States than al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. Since then, press accounts have stated that the United States government plans to carry out drone attacks in Yemen, and reported that U.S. Central Command plans to give $1.2 billion in aid to Yemen’s military over a five-year period. But such policies, no matter how well-intentioned, are unlikely to solve the very real challenges posed by al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen and may well make the situation worse.

It originally appeared that there was widespread consensus in the government on providing such military aid to Yemen. But a recent article in the New York Times highlights that there is a vigorous debate within the Obama administration about the efficacy of such aid. The Obama administration has been debating the legality of droning an American citizen (i.e. Anwar al-Awlaki). Before rushing into a major new program, it’s worth recalling the reasons why past U.S.-backed efforts aimed at eliminating al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen have failed.

Efforts to aid the Yemeni government against AQAP have done little to help solve some of Yemen’s larger societal problems, including water shortages, declining oil supplies, refugee and IDP problems, population growth, rebellion in the north, and a secessionist movement in the south. Indeed, increased military aid could actually exacerbate the already pervasive military culture in Yemen and cement the war economy, and intensify the grievances of citizens from the rebellion led by the Huthis in the north and the secessionist southern movement in the south. This is problematic because Yemen’s President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh views those conflicts as more of a threat to his power than AQAP and may well be tempted to use counterterrorism assistance against them. If this were the case, as Brian O’Neil argues, this would severely undermine the United States’ efforts.

Drone strikes are often proposed as an effective method for targeting AQAP’s leadership. But such strikes in Yemen could lead to many innocent civilian deaths without having a significant impact on AQAP’s leadership. The debate about their effect in Pakistan, which reveals a deep tension between military utility and potentially negative political effects, may be even more intense in Yemen.

The only reported drone strike in Yemen since President Obama came into office was the Dec. 17, 2009 strike on the community of al-Ma’jalah in the Abyan governorate in southern Yemen, which killed 41 civilians and 14 members of al Qaeda, but no one of importance. Consequently, AQAP used this drone strike as the reason for the attempted Christmas Day attack conducted by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.

This, however, was not the first time drones have been used in Yemen. In November, 2002, the Bush administration conducted a drone strike which killed the leader of the group then known as al Qaeda in Yemen, Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, which also killed American citizen Kamal Derwish (Ahmed Hijazi). This reportedly hobbled the organization for some time, but as Gregory Johnsen points out: “this is not 2002 and if the U.S. thinks that by taking out [AQAP leaders] al-Wahayshi, al-Shihri or al-Raymi it can do what it did when it killed al-Harithi it is sadly mistaken. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will survive the deaths of any one of those individuals and possible the deaths of all three.”

The politics are treacherous. Launching drone strikes could hinder efforts to solve the northern and southern conflict peacefully. As Gregory Johnsen has warned, conducting drone strikes in Yemen could entangle the United States in tribal conflicts, which would further draw the United States into Yemen’s internal matters, as well as inflame other challenges to the Yemeni government such as the southern insurrection and the Huthi rebellion.

If the United States tried to target an AQAP operative in a Huthi stronghold in northern Yemen and accidentally killed individuals who sympathize with the Huthi cause, it would most likely break the fragile peace and lead to a resumption and major escalation of war between the Huthis and the Yemeni government. Further, in the past round of battle from August, 2009 to February, 2010, Saudi Arabia — which collects a large amount of American military aid — overtly entered the war. A small counterterrorism operation could quickly spiral into a regional war that has nothing to do with AQAP, but could further destabilize the security situation in Yemen and detract from the fight against AQAP.

One has to also consider the rise in recent months of violence between AQAP operatives and Yemeni security forces, which has mainly occurred in southern Yemen as well as the recent uptickin violence by the Yemeni government against the southern movement. This could potentially lead southerners to establish closer ties to AQAP, even though each group has different goals. AQAP has already tried to co-opt the southern movement’s banner for cessation, though, under the framework of an Islamic Emirate when releasing a message titled “Message to Our People in the South.” As the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wahayshi, states: “We in the al Qaeda network support what you are doing: your rejection of oppression practiced against you and others, your fight against the government and your defending yourself.”  As of now, there is no evidence of collusion between the two groups even if the Yemeni government argues otherwise. The southern movement has rejected overtures from AQAP in the past. But if the Yemeni government continues to conflate the southern movement with AQAP and further violence is directed toward the southern movement, it could lead to an alliance of convenience.

Another issue has to do with the legality of targeting an American citizen. How the Obama administration decides to handle the situation with Anwar al-Awlaki will shed light on the United States’ legal policy vis-à-vis the war on terror. Will it lead the United States down a slippery slope that further erodes the rule of law and its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community? Or, will it affirm Obama’s statement in his inaugural address: “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Finally, the United States should not be surprised if AQAP tries to respond to drones by attacking the homeland as it nearly did with the Christmas Day failure. What if AQAP was successful? As Greg Scoblete succinctly points out: “the call for America to push aside its weak local partner and take care of the problem itself will only grow louder.” Will the United States then expand its aid to deal with Yemen’s other domestic issues – governance, infrastructure, education, healthcare, and economic development? Or potentially put boots on the ground? That would only further entrench the United States in a complex society that it truly does not understand; and, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, that leads to greater trouble.

But what if pouring $1.2 billion of military aid into Yemen buttressed by a drone offensive against AQAP works? Obviously, one hopes the United States is successful in dismantling AQAP and that it does not repeat the same mistakes it made in 2003 by taking its eyes off of al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen. But, it is hard to envision the United States completely succeeding since President Saleh has an incentive to keep AQAP alive. Between 2003 and 2006 the United States reduced its military aid significantly. As such, President Saleh views AQAP as a tool to continue to get attention from the United States even at the expense of his nation.

The United States should encourage Yemen to peacefully resolve the conflicts in the north and south as well as address the grievances these groups have, which would free up resources to tackle other pressing issues. The United States should also do the following: take a lead in a new international donor fund initiative for development and reducing poverty, but unlike in the pastmake sure donors follow through; continue its low-profile training of Yemen military officials; support efforts to diversify Yemen’s economy, which relies heavily on unsustainable depleting oil resources; promote international aid programs to help the more than 300,000 IDP’s and refugees; and stimulate reform efforts in the political, judicial, educational, infrastructural, and medical realm to better serve Yemen’s citizens. This may marginalize AQAP by taking away potential rhetorical points, leading to its eventual defeat.

Aaron Y. Zelin is a research assistant in the politics department at Brandeis University and blogs atJihadology.