What We Know About Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a leader of the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda (AQAP), is displayed on televisions at an electronics shop in Sanaa January 14, 2015 as he delivers a message which purports to show Al Qaeda in Yemen claiming responsibility for the attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Khaled Abdulla/REUTERS

The al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, usually referred to as AQAP - or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - was founded in 2009 after the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the terrorist organisation combined. According to recent figures from the U.S. State Department the organisation has almost a thousand members and analysts rate it as the most dangerous franchise of al-Qaeda.

Since forming, the group have carried out a series of attacks in the Middle East including a suicide bombing at a military parade rehearsal which killed as many as 100 Yemeni soldiers in 2012. Last week, on the very same day that the world's media was reporting that gunmen had shot dead 12 people in Paris, AQAP killed 37 people in Yemen when they detonated a bomb near a police academy on January 7th. As James Fergusson, a Newsweek correspondent who recently returned from the country points out: "They may not be terribly good at targeting the West but they're very effective at targeting their own."

The extent of AQAP's involvement in the attacks in Paris is still under investigation, but counter-terrorism officials have confirmed that in 2011 the group transferred $20,000 to the Kouachi brothers responsible for the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Even if they did not officially direct the attack, AQAP's funding means that Paris represents the first successful attack on Western soil which the group have been involved in, and al-Qaeda's most deadly since the 2005 bombings of the London transport network.

AQAP have been consistently vocal about their aim to target the U.S. and Europe, but so far have been unsuccessful in their attempts. In 2014 a video surfaced which appeared to show

al-Wuhayshi addressing more than a hundred fighters, in which he says: "We must eliminate the cross... The bearer of the cross is America!" They were behind the failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009 of a plane heading to Detroit, and they have also twice tried to down U.S.-bound cargo planes. Yemeni officials later said that both plans were foiled due to a tip off from Jabir al-Fayif, a Saudi jihadist who had become a double agent.

AQAP's current leader is Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who previously served as Osama bin Laden's secretary in Afghanistan and who was one of 23 prisoners who escaped a high-security jail in Yemen's capital Sana'a in 2006. The U.S. have pledged a $10 million reward for information that leads to his capture.

Another prominent figure in AQAP, who was killed in a drone strike in 2011, was American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who is considered to be a key influence behind many of the attacks AQAP have carried out. The FBI later said that he had meetings with two of the 9/11 hijackers and it's believed that al-Awlaki met with one of the Kouachi brothers when he visited Yemen in 2011.

In 2009 Wikileaks released classified State Department cables in which Hillary Clinton indicated that it was rich donors from Saudi Arabia who were a major source of funding for al-Qaeda. James Fergusson also believes that much of AQAP's money comes from "misguided" millionaires from the Gulf. "Yemen has a special status in the Arab world, it's considered a holy land," he explains. Many of these oil sheiks trace their lineage back to Yemen and so are keen to pay back these remittances to AQAP."

One question that has been raised by the Paris attacks is a possible link between AQAP and ISIS. Whilst the al-Qaeda group have claimed responsibility for the Hebdo attack, they have said they were not involved with Amedy Coulibaly, the man who shot a policewoman and four people in the kosher grocery. In a video released after Coulibaly's death he says he is a member of ISIS, although his links to the organization have not yet been established. AQAP released a video in November 2014 in which Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, a senior official of the group said they reject ISIS's caliphate, suggesting that the groups are not working together as of yet.

Whether AQAP will expand and grow, boosted by the events in Paris, is also a concern. James Fergusson says that, even without being connected with the Paris shooters, the current upheaval in Yemen is creating a rich breeding ground for AQAP's expansion. "Yemen is the new front in the fight between Sunni and Shia Muslims and al-Qaeda is exploiting this. Yemen is looking like a good opportunity for AQAP now. The government is under attack, there are separatists in the south, Houthis in the north and al-Qaeda rapidly rising in the east."

The attacks in Paris have led to concerns that more like them will follow - targeted, smaller-scale assaults carried out in European and U.S. cities. Raffaello Pantucci, the director of international security studies at RUSI - an organisation that researches international security and defence - says that security services would certainly be "reevaluating the level of concern regarding the community of people who were going out to Yemen" to visit al-Awlaki between 2009-2011. Pantucci points out that while a lot of attention - both from the media and the security services - has been focused on ISIS activity over the last year or so, we have "a tendency to get caught up in the immediate and should be careful not to be distracted".