Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2010

Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Alistair Harris

May 2010

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an offshoot of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network and a group that has been operating in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, presents a growing regional and international security challenge. Analysis of AQAP confi rms that it has been adept at aligning the grievances of Yemeni communities with its own narrative of what is wrong and who is responsible. But AQAP’s limited membership shows this has not translated into widespread recruitment because of dissonance between the organization’s recommended course of action—violent jihad—and traditional Yemeni methods of seeking redress.2 Failure to address such grievances, however, runs the risk of increasing receptivity to alternative frameworks that include the use of violence. Complementary to targeted intelligence and Yemeni-led law enforcement activities, an effective strategy to combat AQAP must seek to understand which parts of the group’s narrative are resonating and why and how state institutions can address the grievances—real or perceived—articulated by AQAP. At the same time, policy makers must exploit contradictions in the extremist narrative, particularly regarding the (in)effi cacy and illegitimacy of violent jihad. Increased governmental visibility and service delivery at the local level are therefore recommended as components of a development assistance approach to counterterrorism. Such an approach is premised on commitment by and partnership with the Yemeni government and an acknowledgment of the limitations of military operations to deal with the threat comprehensively.