All posts by Niklas Anzinger

Jihad at Sea – Al Qaeda’s Maritime Front in Yemen

Yemen’s state weakness due to fragmentation and ongoing conflicts allowed Al Qaeda and affiliates to take and hold territory, possibly enabling them to seize the Port of Aden. If Al Qaeda establishes safe havens in the southern Abyan province, supported by local Yemeni inhabitants, attacks at sea or in near by ports similar to the “USS Cole bombing” in 2000 could become a threat, increasing the danger to Red Sea shipping. Yet Al Qaeda is of secondary concern for the Yemeni government, with secessionist insurgencies in the north and the south threatening the state’s unity. Only a stable Yemen can effectively deny Al Qaeda a stable base in the long run.

(Source: Stratfor)

In recent years, international shippers taking the Red Sea route have been primarily concerned with attacks by Somali pirates. Those attacks went down from 237 in 2011 to 15 in 2013 due to the Somali governments’ increased ability to fight and deter piracy, among other causes. However, another threat to international shipping in the Gulf of Aden looms. Yemen’s southern coastline is on the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb which links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a critical maritime choke point where roughly 8.2% of global oil supply passed through in 2009. Its oil exports, accounting for 70% of Yemeni government revenue, make the country highly dependent on its declining reserves. Yemen is an Al Qaeda stronghold, second only to Pakistan (and possibly Syria more recently). It was a target of the U.S. “drone campaign,” with 94 strikes between 2002 and 2013 (Pakistan: 368). Al Qaeda aims to enforce rigid Islamic legislation in Muslim countries and establish a global Islamic Caliphate. According to its 20-year plan, Al Qaeda aims to subdue “apostate” Muslim regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It hosts a franchise in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), establishing safe havens in the governorates of Al Bayda’, Ma’rib, Shabwah, Lahji and Abyan, where it exerts considerable influence.

2002 – Bombing of M/V LIMBURG

Yemen’s weak central state
Yet the Yemeni government, headed by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi since February 2012 after the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh came to an end, has to deal with more than Al Qaeda. In 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north united with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. United in name, Yemen, however, remained a fragmented entity rife with internal divisions. In 1994, a civil war between Saleh’s north and the secessionist south broke out. In 1997, a group called “Ansar Allah”, emerging from a Zaidi Shia religious organization, confronted the Yemeni government leading to armed uprisings and several rounds of fighting between 2004 and 2010. In late March 2011, the defection of General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the chief military commander in north Yemen, led to a security vacuum in the northwest that Ansar Allah seized to take control of Saada city where it continues fighting Sunni-Salafist tribes. His defection may, however, only be a symptom of the Yemeni state’s retreat to Sana’a, neglecting the north and the south. As a consequence, Hadi has to cope with internal struggles and two rebel movements, constraining his ability to fight AQAP.

Al Qaeda’s terrorism at sea
Al Qaeda’s terrorism at sea emanating from Yemen has a tradition and method. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, an eminent jihadi strategist, defined several choke points as a target and outlined methods for disruption: blocking the passages using mines or sinking ships in them, threatening movement at sea through piracy, martyrdom operations and weapons.

On the Earth, there are five (5) important straits, four of them are in the countries of the Arabs and the Muslims. The fifth one is in America, and it is the Panama Canal. These straits are: 1. The Strait of Hormuz, the oil gate in the Persian Gulf. 2. The Suez Canal in Egypt. 3. The Bab el Mandib between Yemen and the African continent. 4. The Gibraltar Strait in Morocco. Most of the Western world’s economy, in terms of trade and oil, passes through these sea passages. Also passing through them are the military fleets, aircraft carriers and the deadly missiles hitting our women and children … It is necessary to shut these passages until the invader campaigns have left our countries. […]. — Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, “The Global Islamic Resistance Call“.

On January 3, 2000, members of Al Qaeda attempted an attack on the USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyer, while in the Port of Aden. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, called “the Prince of the Sea”, was its mastermind. He learned boat-handling and other skills from seafarers in western Yemen, adopted the tactics of the LTTE Sea Tigers, an Islamist insurgency in Sri Lanka, and developed plans to attack in the choke points of the Straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar. He discussed the idea to attack U.S. vessels with Osama bin Laden who sent him to Aden in southern Yemen where he organized the attack on USS The Sullivans. A small group loaded a boat with explosives near USS The Sullivans, however overloading the boat so that it sank, before it could launch the attack. Nine days later on October 12, Al Qaeda avoided mistakes, successfully bombing the USS Cole. The USS Cole (DDG-67), same model as USS The Sullivans, was being refueled in the harbor at Aden when it was attacked, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39. On October 6, 2002, the same tactic worked again. A small suicide vessel rammed the MV Limburg, a French 157,000-ton crude oil tanker, in the Arabian Sea near the southern Yemeni coastal town of Al-Mukalla. On November 22, 2002, al-Nashiri was captured, and he has been held in Guantanamo ever since. Nevertheless, Al Qaeda-aligned groups remain able to attack ships. In July 2010, the “Abdullah Azzam Brigade” launched a suicide attack against the Japanese oil tanker MV M. Star in the Strait of Hormuz, injuring a crew member.

Army soldiers standing at a tank with posters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, secure a road in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden. (Source: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Al Qaeda’s resurgence through soft power
In January 2009, AQAP dramatically increased in strength by merging its Saudi and Yemeni franchises. It has proclaimed Islamic Emirates in the cities of Shaqra, Jaar, Azzan and Zinjibar since 2011, and controls checkpoints in the south. An autonomous enclave, established by AQAP insurgents in the southern province of Abyan in 2011, was overrun by the military in June 2012, although some militants were reportedly displaced to other areas. Hadi was able to recapture Abyan in 2012 and restore limited control over the coastal city of Zinjibar. Abyan could, however, become a staging ground for operations to seize Aden, should the Yemeni military fail to defeat AQAP (sometimes referred to as “Ansar al Sharia”, an alias) in Zinjibar. AQAP’s leadership has recently adopted a “soft power” strategy to take and hold territory. Is has been the frequent goal of AQAP in the south to establish an Islamic state; however, in early 2011, Osama bin Laden opposed the idea in a letter to leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi due to “lack of popular support on the ground”. In April 2011, Adil al-Abab, Al Qaeda’s chief cleric, expressed the need to provide social services such as food and water, as part of the strategy to hold territory. He stated “first Zanjibar then Aden”. Later in May 2, 2011, bin Laden was killed by a US Navy SEAL team in his mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but Wuhayshi continued with his strategy and made an “unprecedented” effort to develop and provide social services such as water and electricity in Jaar and Zanjibar. Even though President Hadi has been confident in his success ridding Abyan of AQAP, the fighting continues to the present date.

(Source: Josef Polleross)

Aden’s centrality and the U.S. approach
Indeed, Aden would be a vital strategic asset for Al Qaeda, providing a secure base for attacks in the Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Aden had been a prosperous maritime hub under the British as shipments through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal became an important part of world trade. Yet Aden declined over the last two decades. Because it was mismanaged by corrupt politicians, and Al Qaeda’s attacks on the USS Cole and the MV Limburg drove up the price of marine insurance, international shippers have neglected Aden since in favor of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, Port Sudan and Djibouti. Instead of prospering, Aden could remain a “Cinderella of the East”, so argues author Victoria Clark. The U.S. follows a three-fold strategy in Yemen: combating AQAP, development assistance and international support for stabilization. It has repeatedly targeted and eliminated high-profile targets in Yemen, using UAVs, military-led airstrikes and CIA operations.

Yet the U.S. counter-strategy depends on the Yemeni state’s ability to maintain national unity. Yemen’s armed forces, including the navy and the air force, are poorly equipped, insufficiently trained and lack morale, limiting the government’s ability to exert control outside of the capital and ensure territorial sovereignty on land or at sea. Al Qaeda’s new soft power strategy requires a different approach in supporting the Sana’a government: assistance to local administrations, building forces to protect local communities and developing basic services. Al Qaeda might be of primary concern for the U.S., but it is only one of many threats to the Yemeni state. Hadi has, however, concentrated his security forces to fight AQAP and neglected demands of the north and the south. As a result, the national dialogue conference is in risk of failure, increasing the secessionist threat. In turn, U.S. support should not primarily focus on combating AQAP but the ability to unite Yemen as a whole, decreasing the group’s attractiveness as an alternative to the central government.


Niklas Anzinger is a Graduate Assistant at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, NY. This post appeared in its original form and was cross-posted by permission from our partner site

Is Egypt’s Instability a Threat to the Suez Canal?

Fatal attacks on the Suez Canal, one of the world’s central trade routes by sea, have long been a mere theoretical possibility. This changed with the attack on the “Cosco Asia” on 31 August 2013. The attack is a result of political instability in Egypt, leaving the Sinai Peninsula a lawless zone for jihadists and Bedouin militias. In response, the Egyptian armed forces launched a brutal anti-terrorism campaign in the northern Sinai. However, purely military measures could prove insufficient.

A U.S. Navy Sikorsky RH-53D of helicopter mine countermeasures squadron HM-12 Sea Dragons sweeping the Suez Canal using an Mk 105 minesweeping gear during “Operation Nimbus Moon” in 1974. Source: U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News September 1974

The Suez Canal is one of the most militarized zones in the world due to its strategic importance, reflected in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and its closure from 1967–1975 during the Arab-Israeli wars. The passage through the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb is considered to be the second most important waterway for global oil trade after the Strait of Hormuz. A blockade of the Suez Canal could have disastrous effects on the world economy. The canal, built by the British and in operation since 1869, is controlled by an extensive security system under supervision of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA). The SCA employs vessel data registration, radar surveillance, signal stations, camera surveillance and a signal-based automatic identification system. Egypt’s armed forces are responsible for its security, having an estimated five divisions deployed with the Second Army responsible for the Port Said-area from the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Third Army responsible from Ismailiya to the Red Sea to the south.

Attack on the Canal

Yet the Cosco Asia attack exposed its vulnerabilities – primarily because the geographic 120-mile stretch between Port Said and Suez is hard to control, enabling militant groups to mount land-based attacks in narrow passages. On 31 August 2013, a group calling itself “Al-Furqan Brigade” claimed responsibility for an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) attack on the Cosco Asia, a Chinese-owned container ship under Panamanian flag with 10,000t of cargo on its way to Northern Europe. The attack did not cause much harm. The bullet only struck a container containing an illegal delivery of cigarettes belonging to Irish smugglers. If such terrorist groups are able to cause a ship to sink in a narrow passage of the canal, the authorities would be forced to stop canal traffic and remove the ship. Yet an incident of this magnitude seems highly unlikely since it would take a large-scale operation to sink a robust ship. Thanks to the comprehensive surveillance system in the canal zone, Egyptian security forces can quickly respond to major incidents. Larger operations would therefore be very difficult for terrorist groups to carry out.

Source: The Economist

Egypt’s Sinai Problem

An attack on the Suez Canal could cause a devastating disruption of maritime trade. It is less real danger, but more the possibility of such attacks that creates anxiety among Egyptian authorities and international shippers. There are reasons to remain cautious in the future. After the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt on 30 June 2012; Morsi in turn was later ousted on 3 July 2013. In Egypt after Mubarak, the constitution is disputed, the military establishment continues to dominate and Islamists are increasingly confronting the state authority. Egypt’s security policy in Sinai is becoming a key challenge. On 17 July 2013, the Associated Press reported, based on a series of interviews with military sources, that Morsi had been at odds with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for several months, the man whom Morsi had promoted from Head of Military Intelligence Services to Defense Minister and Head of the Armed Forces in August 2012. According to a former general the security situation in the Sinai was the main source of disagreement. According to military sources, but also leading Islamist figures who reject the use of violence as a tactic, Morsi was collaborating with armed extremist groups in the Sinai. El-Sissi believed that insecurity in Sinai was a threat to Egypt’s state security and used this as the reason to topple Morsi from the presidency.

The Sinai Peninsula Underworld

The 23,500 mile²-large peninsula has been a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt since the peace treaty of 1979. Only limited military forces are allowed to operate and multinational armed forces (MFO) are stationed to ensure accordance with the peace treaty. The population of around 400,000 people consists to three quarters of Bedouins, the rest Palestinians, Egyptian immigrants and descendants of the settlers from the Ottoman period. Egypt has largely neglected Sinai and its inhabitants, many of whom do not have Egyptian citizenship, keeping public investments and military presence low. The Egyptian army never deployed more than 70-80 percent of the 22,000 soldiers allowed by the Camp David Agreements in Zone A of the Western Sinai. Nor had it opened headquarters or trained troops for combat in desert terrain. After Mubarak’s downfall, jihadist groups became more active, supported by increasingly dissatisfied Bedouins. The long marginalized tribal Sinai Bedouins have since become a semi-autonomous player. Egypt could no longer neglect the Sinai Peninsula, considering increasing terror activities of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Qaeda or Bedouins who joined Salafi-jihadist groups. After the uprisings in the Arab world, illicit smuggling of people and weapons from Algeria and Libya increased. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) welcomed hundreds of Sinai-based militants to Libya for training and cooperation. A strong Hamas network has been smuggling weapons both from and into Gaza, coming from Iran through Sudan and Egypt. Hamas employs secret storage sites throughout the Sinai, including long-range missiles, explosives workshops, rockets and mortars. It is estimated by local sources that a total of 100,000 weapons of all kinds and an illicit trade amounting to roughly $300 million exist in the Sinai.

Militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula bombed a gas pipeline to Jordan on July 6, 2013 witnesses said, amid a surge in attacks on police and soldiers since Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office. (Source: AFP)

Uprising and Open Confrontation of the State Authority

After Mubarak’s fall, Sinai experienced a quasi-insurgency with more than 200 attacks in five months, including rocket attacks on military targets and gas pipelines as well as armed robberies using trucks and motorcycles. Egypt’s armed forces launched Operation Eagle in August 2011 to address increasing lawlessness, mainly in the north of Sinai. On 19 August 2013, 25 Egyptian policemen were killed in an ambush in Rafah. The attackers fired RPGs on their convoy to stop it, before removing and then executing the passengers openly in the street. After Morsi’s ouster, violent attacks peaked between 1 and 28 July 2013, when 250 attacks were tracked. As a reaction, the armed forces started Operation Desert Storm on 27 July, deploying 20,000 soldiers supported by US-supplied Apache combat helicopters. This meant Egypt’s largest mobilization since the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Egypt’s security forces killed and detained militants from Libya, the Palestinian Territories, the North Caucasus, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. The frequency of attacks dropped in the months that followed. The inhabitants of the Sinai bemoan indiscriminate destruction of their homes, enormous brutality of the Egyptian army against suspects and their stigmatization as “terrorists.” Many young Bedouins have joined jihadist groups. Al Qaeda, Hamas and many other groups are in open confrontation with the Egyptian state with increasing support of the locals, who are loosing confidence in the state. On November 20, a Salafi-jihadist group attacked a convoy of buses with Egyptian security personnel in the northern Sinai, killing 11 and wounding 35 – the bloodiest attack since July but the last of this size. It seems the military was successful in curbing attacks which went down from 104 in July, to 40, 31 and 22 in August, September and October. During the counter-terrorism campaign, the Egyptian armed forces recognized that the Rafah tunnels at the 9 miles-border to Gaza are a key security challenge. Since August 2012, the military targeted the tunnel networks, bombing and flooding them. In July, the estimates of operating tunnels ranged between 100 and 300, while in September, only ten remained. However, the bombardments on the tunnels to Gaza will lead to further economic losses and deprive even more people of their livelihood.

Egyptian military helicopters on September 3, 2013 launched air strikes on militants in the country’s restive Sinai peninsula, where the army has been battling a semi-insurgency, security sources and witnesses said. Source:


Egypt’s Coming Collapse?

This will not calm Sinai’s inhabitants, who may find more reasons to confront the Egyptian state. More unrest and terrorist attacks against civilians, military targets or the Suez Canal can be expected. The confrontation may become even more intense after Al Qaeda veterans’ call for arms against the Egyptian army. On September 5, the Sunni-jihadist group Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis used an improvised explosive device (IED) placed in a car with 50 kilograms of explosives to target the interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim’s convoy in Nasr City, Cairo, injuring 22. More such IEDs have been found on the main Cairo-Suez road, indicating that the wave of violence increasingly affects the mainland. After Morsi’s ouster, regular protests and attacks on military targets took place in the Suez Canal port cities, Suez, Ismailia and Port Said. Lloyd‘s List, a marine insurance company, reported increased military activity and ship inspections in the canal. Lloyd‘s recommended ships take the 6000 mile-longer route around the Cape of Good Hope instead. This wave of terror might only be the beginning. If the security situation in Egypt is not improved, the Suez Canal passage would be considered to be even more dangerous in the future, increasing risk premiums for shipping and causing the Egyptian economy to suffer further. It cannot be ruled out that the North Sea route will become more attractive for international shipping in the future.

In spite of the recent successes by the Egyptian armed forces’ counter-terrorism campaign, the breeding ground for jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula remains a challenge for Egypt, forcing it to look beyond the military dimension and instead focus on governing Sinai and addressing local grievances in the long run.


Niklas Anzinger is a Graduate Assistant at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, NY. This post appeared in it’s original form and was cross-posted by permission from our partner site