Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen, is a case study in how the group now wields its power more locally. The group has played up religious divisions in the civil war.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had hundreds of fighters at its founding in It now has about 7, fighters in Yemen , most of them Sunnis recruited from territory the Houthis have attempted to take over. It has planted landmines and bombs across Yemen that have killed hundreds , held journalists hostage and, in , orchestrated the massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris.
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In adapting its methods to Yemeni culture, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made some missteps. In , the group attempted to impose extremely strict Islamic rule over two areas it controlled in south Yemen. Al-Qaeda instituted rigid punishments of the sort common in Afghanistan, such as cutting off the hands of a thief and banning the chewed stimulant plant called khat.
These extreme rules got al-Qaeda run out of town by Sunni tribal militias. The next time al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula asserted its political power over parts of Yemen left ungoverned in the chaos of civil war, in , it did not rule directly over these territories.
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Rather, it allowed a local council to govern according their own norms and customs. And it kept the khat market open. According to the International Crisis Group , a humanitarian organization, this softer stance helped garner the acceptance of the local population. That, in turn, ensured al-Qaeda could keep using Yemen as a regional headquarters.
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A similar shift from global to local has occurred in al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Iraq and Syria. But it is stronger and more resilient than it was under bin Laden.
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