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Profile: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

From left: Hurayrah Qasim al-Raymi, Said al-Shihri, Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Mohammed al-Awfi (January 2009)
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has promised "total war on all crusaders"

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in January 2009 by a merger between two regional offshoots of the international Islamist militant network in neighbouring Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Led by a former aide to Osama Bin Laden , the group has vowed to attack oil facilities, foreigners and security forces as it seeks to topple the Saudi monarchy and Yemeni government, and establish an Islamic caliphate.

It has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in the two countries over the past 12 months, and has been blamed by President Barack Obama for attempting to blow up a US passenger jet as it flew into Detroit on Christmas Day.

A Nigerian man charged in relation to the incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab , has allegedly told investigators that AQAP operatives trained him in Yemen, equipped him with a powerful explosive device and told him what to do.

He also warned there were others like him who would strike soon.

Beheading

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula first came to prominence in Saudi Arabia in May 2003, when it claimed responsibility for simultaneous suicide bombing attacks on three Western housing compounds in Riyadh , which left 29 dead.

Aftermath of attack on Muhayyah residential compound (2003)
The Saudi branch of al-Qaeda targeted residential compounds in Riyadh

Despite a subsequent crackdown on Islamist militants and radicals by the Saudi security forces, the group was able to mount an attack on the Muhayyah residential compound in the capital that November, killing 17 people.

In 2004, it suffered a major blow when its leader, Khaled Ali Hajj - a Yemeni and former bodyguard of Bin Laden - was ambushed and killed by Saudi troops.

However, the group soon recovered under the guidance of a veteran Saudi militant, Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin , and launched a series of spectacular attacks.

On 1 May 2004, militants shot dead five Western workers at a petrochemical complex in the north-western Red Sea city of Yanbu. On 29 May, more than 20 foreign and Saudi nationals were killed in attacks on three sites in the city of al-Khobar, increasing fears of political instability and pushing up global oil prices.

The following month, members of AQAP abducted and beheaded a 49-year old American aerospace worker named Paul Johnson .

AL-QAEDA OFFSHOOT
Formed in January 2009 by a merger between al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Yemen
Based in eastern Yemen
Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden. Deputy leader is Saudi ex-Guantanamo inmate Said al-Shihri
Aims to topple Saudi monarchy and Yemeni government, and establish an Islamic caliphate
Came to prominence with Riyadh bombings in 2003, and 2008 attack on US embassy in Sanaa
Blamed for attempt to blow up US passenger jet in December 2009

The triumph was short-lived, however, as when security forces stormed a hideout in Riyadh looking for Johnson's murderers Muqrin was shot dead.

Although militants killed at least nine people in a raid on the US consulate in Jeddah in December 2004, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula enjoyed notably less success under Muqrin's successor, Salih al-Awfi .

The Saudi security services gradually gained the upper hand, and succeed in preventing any major attacks the following year, when Awfi was himself killed during a police raid in the holy city of Medina.

In spite of the large numbers of Saudis who then travelled to militant training camps and gained experience fighting in places such as Iraq, the group found it increasingly difficult to organise operational cells inside the kingdom. Its last attempt a significant attack was at the Abqaiq oil facility in February 2006 .

Prison escape

Meanwhile in Yemen - the ancestral home of Bin Laden - Sunni militants took advantage of the weak central government, whose authority does not extend far outside the capital Sanaa, and established strongholds in its largely autonomous tribal regions.

Dead Yemeni guard buried after attack on US embassy in Sanaa (2008)
Al-Qaeda in Yemen was linked to the assault on the US embassy in Sanaa

Although al-Qaeda cells were held responsible for several attacks inside Yemen since the suicide boat attack on the USS Cole near the port of Aden in 2000 that killed 17 US sailors, it was not until the second half of the decade that a fully-functioning affiliated group was formed.

According to Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University, between 2002 and 2003 the Yemeni government co-operated closely with the US to fight al-Qaeda. By the end of that period - which included one leader being killed in a controversial strike by a CIA drone aircraft - al-Qaeda appeared to be substantially weakened and so both countries shifted focus.

The policy appeared to have worked until February 2006, Mr Johnsen says, when 23 suspected al-Qaeda members managed to escape from a prison in Sanaa , including Jamal al-Badawi, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing.

Most were eventually either recaptured or killed, but two of the lesser-known escapees eluded the authorities, including Nasser Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi, a former personal assistant to Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Qasim al-Raymi.

A 33-year-old from the southern governorate of al-Baida, Wuhayshi spent time in religious institutions in Yemen before travelling to Afghanistan in the late 1990s. He fought at the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, before escaping over the border into Iran, where he was eventually arrested. He was extradited to Yemen in 2003.

After escaping from prison, Wuhayshi and Raymi are said to have overseen the formation of al-Qaeda in Yemen, which took in both new recruits and experienced Arab fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Protected by tribes who were wary of government interference, the group established bases from which to launch fresh attacks.

The group claimed responsibility for two suicide bomb attacks that killed six Western tourists before being linked to the assault on the US embassy in Sanaa in September 2008 , in which militants detonated bombs and fired rocket-propelled grenades. Ten Yemeni guards and four civilians were killed, along with six assailants.

Nasser Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi
Wuhayshi is said to have overseen the rebuilding of al-Qaeda in Yemen

Four months later, Wuhayshi announced in a video the merger of the al-Qaeda offshoots in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to form "al-Qaeda of Jihad Organisation in the Arabian Peninsula".

Analysts say the move was designed to bring Saudi al-Qaeda members who had fled their country and Yemeni militants together under one umbrella as a first step towards launching attacks throughout the region.

Next to Wuhayshi and Raymi in the same video sat the new group's deputy leader, Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi national who was released from the US military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in November 2007.

Another former detainee, Mohammed Atiq al-Harbi, also known as Mohammed al-Awfi, appeared alongside them and was described as a field commander.

Embarrassingly for both Riyadh and Washington, both men had been released from Guantanamo into the custody of the Saudi government's "deradicalisation" programme for militants, which includes art therapy. They both left the facility within weeks.

The group's first operation outside Yemen was carried out in Saudi Arabia in August 2009 against the kingdom's security chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, though he survived. The bomber concealed a bomb containing the high-explosive PETN (pentaerythritol) inside his body.

Internet statement purported published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claiming responsibilty for failed attack on Northwest Airlines Airbus A330
AQAP said it was behind the alleged attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

After news of the failed attempt to destroy the Northwest Airlines Airbus A330 emerged, AQAP released a statement saying it had sought to avenge recent raids by Yemeni forces aided by US intelligence , in which dozens of militants are reported to have died.

"We tell the American people that since you support the leaders who kill our women and children... we have come to slaughter you [and] will strike you with no previous [warning], our vengeance is near," the group said.

"We call on all Muslims... to throw out all unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula by killing crusaders who work in embassies or elsewhere... [in] a total war on all crusaders in the Peninsula of Muhammad."

Reports on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's membership vary wildly - some experts say there are fewer than 50 fighters, while others believe there may be 200 to 300 - but most agree that if it is left unmolested it will soon become a major threat.



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SEE ALSO
Obama links al-Qaeda to jet plot
02 Jan 10 |  Americas
Al-Qaeda claims Saudi prince bomb
30 Aug 09 |  Middle East
Al-Qaeda group claims bomb plot
28 Dec 09 |  Middle East
Blasts rock US embassy in Yemen
17 Sep 08 |  Middle East
Yemen faces new Jihad generation
17 Sep 08 |  Middle East
Hunt on for Yemeni jailbreakers
04 Feb 06 |  Middle East
Saudis 'foil oil facility attack'
24 Feb 06 |  Middle East
Militants behead US hostage
18 Jun 04 |  Middle East
Saudi bombing deaths rise
13 May 03 |  Middle East
Terror alert after US warship blast
13 Oct 00 |  Middle East
Profile: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
07 Jan 10 |  Americas


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