Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group that claimed responsibility for orchestrating the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s staff, has been deemed to be the most lethal spinoff of the extremist network since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Pakistan.
The name AQAP came into existence in 2009 when Al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch merged with its Yemeni branch. But Al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen dates to the early 1990s when fighters returned home from Afghanistan accompanied by those from outside the country — including bin Laden — after successfully fighting off Soviet occupation.
Extremists in Yemen grouped under various names including Islamic Jihad in Yemen, Army of Aden Abyan and Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The latter first gained notoriety in 2000 when two members of the group sailed an explosive-laden boat into the U.S. navy ship the USS Cole, killing themselves and 17 Americans. Two years later, the group orchestrated a similar suicide attack on a French oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden, killing a Bulgarian crewmember.
In the late 2000s, Anwar Al-Awlaki again elevated the international profile of the feared armed group. Awlaki’s English-language videos, audio recordings and literature is thought to have influenced thousands of Muslims in the West, allegedly including Charlie Hebdo attackers Said and Cherif Kouachi.
Awlaki, born in New Mexico in 1971 from Yemeni immigrants, preached at U.S. mosques in the early 2000s and was even invited by a Defense Department employee to a Pentagon luncheon as part of an outreach effort to ease tensions with Muslims in America in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Awlaki returned to Yemen in 2004 and was arrested by local authorities two years later on charges of kidnapping a Shia teenager for ransom. He spent 18 months in a prison without facing a trial, and security experts say Awlaki is likely to have been radicalized there.
Five years later, Awlaki’s video’s allegedly helped convince U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan to go on a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, where Hasan killed 13 people in November 2009.
Awalaki is also believed to be the architect of a failed attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttab to detonate explosives in his underwear on a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
A year later Awlaki went into hiding, but he remained one of AQAP’s most influential members, especially with the use of the web-based, English-language magazine Inspire.
On Sept. 30, 2011, a U.S. drone strike killed Awlaki, and two weeks later, a separate strike killed his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman. More than 70 U.S. drone strikes have targeted AQAP members, killing hundreds of people including civilians.
AQAP’s presence and operations in Yemen play a large role in Yemen’s instability. The group often strikes at Yemeni military infrastructure and civilians, especially targeting Yemen’s Shia minority.
Al-Qaeda’s global presence took a hit when the U.S. killed bin Laden and with the rise of its rival the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But AQAP has maintained its ability to incite attackers to target the West, making clear that the organization remains a threat outside of Yemen or the Arabian Peninsula.