Insurgency Resilience: A theory of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s ability to survive and thrive
Since 9/11, the US and allies have been waging “the war on terror” to eliminate Al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the attack.
After almost two-decades, the post 9/11 wars have had immense costs. The US has spent $5.9 trillion (through Fiscal Year 2019) with 480,00 – 507,000 fatalities on the post 9/11 wars. Reputation and influence on the global scale have also been spent at an incalculable amount. And despite the resources, lives, and standing spent on eliminating Al-Qaeda, they are currently stronger than they have ever been. They continue to operate, expand, adapt, and thrive.
What is it about Al-Qaeda that has made them resilient to this onslaught by the most powerful, technologically advanced civilization and military the world has ever seen? This is the theoretical question this project will seek to answer – what causes resiliency in the Al-Qaeda transnational insurgency?
While the core of Al-Qaeda has been largely eliminated or driven into hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, their direct branch is based in Yemen where they are known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP’s ranks have swelled from their founding in the region in 2009 with hundreds of fighters to over 4,000 fighters by 2018. The US currently views AQAP as one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world due to its direct links to Al-Qaeda core and bomb making skills.
AQAP’s, like Al-Qaeda, long-term goal is to establish a global Islamic caliphate. However, they have demonstrated patience and adaptability to play the long game in pursuit of their goal. AQAP has turned their focus from global to local. They are engaging with local population groups in the pursuit of acceptance and alliances to carve out space in Yemeni society and territory in order to recruit, train, and base their operations from. It is this strategic shift that has been fundamental to their resiliency.
I believe Al-Qaeda and AQAP’s resiliency is caused by their ability to leverage and adapt in relations with the local population groups in terms of norms, customs, and political opportunities to survive and expand the insurgency. This project will seek to theorize the causes of AQAP’s resiliency through fieldwork with the local population groups in south and east Yemen that have engaged directly with AQAP. A locally nuanced perspective on AQAP’s engagement with local population groups will reveal granular aspects to understand the insurgency and their strategy.
The lives lost, societies destroyed, and expenses cost in the post 9/11 wars is simply too high. We need a better solution. But in order to do this, we need to understand how it is that Al-Qaeda has managed to survive and thrive in the face of a robust counterinsurgency. An effective counterinsurgency strategy must be based on an empirically-based, theoretical understanding of Al-Qaeda’s resiliency. A study such as this is essential for policymakers to be guided by empirical evidence that will be rigorously analyzed through this project.