Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is thought to have been formed in January 2009, when a video released on jihadist websites announced the merger of militant groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The group came to international attention by the end of that year, when a Nigerian man tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab told US investigators on his arrest that he had been trained in Yemen by AQAP.
The December 25, 2009 plot came to be called “the Christmas Day plot” and Abdulmutallab has been dubbed “the underwear bomber”.
The plot underscored the serious international security threat from Yemen, an impoverished Middle East country beset by political problems.
The Preacher: Anwar al-Awlaki
Born in the US to parents of Yemeni descent, al-Awlaki speaks fluent English. A civil engineer by training, al-Awlaki serves as an imam, or preacher, delivering sermons that are widely circulated on jihadist networks. US investigators say the Christmas Day plotter, Abdulmuttalab, was a “huge fan” of his lectures. So was Nidal Malik Hassan, the US Army psychiatrist who went on a rampage at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas in Nov. 2009.
Al-Awlaki spent a year and a half in a Yemeni prison, between mid-2006 and the end of 2007. There have been reports that he may have been killed in a pre-dawn air strike by Yemeni fighter jets in Dec. 2009, but the reports have not been confirmed and he is increasingly thought to be alive.
There have been numerous reports of al-Awlaki’s death, but none of them have been confirmed. In December 2009, there were reports that he was killed in a pre-dawn air strike by Yemeni fighter jets. On September 30, 2011, Yemen’s Defence Ministry sent a text message to reporters stating that he had been killed alongside some of his companions.
The ‘emir’: Nasir al-Wuhayshi
A Yemeni former aide to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, al-Wuhayshi, was in Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, during the US-led offensive after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He escaped via Iran and was arrested by Iranian authorities who then extradited him to Yemen in 2003.
In Feb. 2006, however, he escaped from a prison in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa along with 22 other prisoners. Many of them were later apprehended, but al-Wuhayshi eluded the authorities. He is believed to be responsible for the Sept. 2008 attack on the US embassy in Sanaa that killed 19 people outside the heavily fortified complex.
In Jan. 2009, al-Wuhayshi released a video announcing the merger of militant groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia – effectively providing an umbrella for Saudi militants fleeing the anti-terror crackdowns by Saudi authorities.
In May 2011, shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALS in Pakistan, al-Wuhayshi issued a statement warning the US that, “what is coming is greater and worse.”
In August 2011, Yemeni military officials claimed al-Wuhayshi had been killed in fighting in southern Yemen. The report was not confirmed.
The fellow escapee: Qasim al-Raymi or Abu Hurayrah al-Sana’ani
In 2006, al-Raymi escaped from a Sanaa prison along with al-Wuhayshi. The two
played a key role in strengthening what would later become al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, after the organisation had been battered by Saudi authorities and close cooperation between US & Yemeni intelligence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Together, al-Raymi and al-Wuhayshi have released a number of statements on jihadi websites – an effective tool for recruiting new members from across the globe, such as Christmas Day plotter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Al-Raymi’s death has been reported multiple times.
The Deputy: Said al-Shihri
A Saudi national, Said al-Shihri serves as the deputy leader of AQAP, according to US intelligence sources. He was captured near the Afghan-Pakistan border in late 2001 and detained at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay before being released and handed over to Saudi authorities. Al-Shihri went through a Saudi “deradicalisation programme” for released Islamist militants. But, embarrassingly for the Saudis, he subsequently crossed the border into Yemen and has played a key role in the new AQAP, according to US intelligence experts. In Dec. 2009, there were reports that he was killed in an air strike in Yemen, but they have not been confirmed and US intelligence officials are functioning on the assumption that he is still alive.
The Field-Commander: Mohammed al-Awfi, also known as Mohammed Atiq al-Harbi
Captured in Pakistan in late 2001, al-Harbi was also released from Guantanamo Bay on Nov. 2007, and graduated from the Saudi rehabilitation programme. But he later crossed the border into Yemen. Al-Harbi appeared with al-Wuhayshi in the Jan. 2009 video that announced the merger of Saudi and Yemeni militant groups. For counter-terror experts engaged in the kremlinology of jihadi counter-terror circles, his presence in the photograph is an indication of his importance in AQAP ranks.