Things have been going pretty good for AQAP of late. The group appears to be gaining recruits both from inside Yemen and abroad and it is taking and holding more territory than ever before, and while there have certainly been setbacks my scorecard for 2012 has AQAP well ahead of the US and Yemen. But it isn't all good for the terrorist organization.
Yesterday Saudi Arabia released a tape of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mishal Muhammad al-Shadukhi speaking to Ali Hamdan, Saudi's ambassador to Yemen. The subject of their conversation was Abdullah al-Khalidi, the deputy Saudi Consul in Aden, who was kidnapped in March.
It isn't clear whether AQAP was responsible for the original kidnapping or - an even more worrisome development - whether a third party kidnapped al-Khalidi and then sold him to AQAP. The latter bothers me more than the former because it speaks to a general breakdown of law and order in Yemen and suggests that AQAP is well enough integrated on the local scene to be a known entity to criminal elements.
Regardless of how it happened, the Saudi deputy consul is in AQAP's hands. And AQAP wants several prisoners released and if that doesn't happen it is prepared to carry out attacks. (Note: al-Shadukhi claims that he is making the call at the request of Nasir al-Wihayshi - who in my mind continues to be underestimated by people studying AQAP.)
Many, including Robert Powell of the Economist Intelligence Unit, believes that the threats "sound like bluster." And indeed they may be, although people have underestimated AQAP before and that hasn't worked out well.
Powell also suggest that AQAP usually executes its prisoners - I would disagree with him on this. And I think this is where AQAP finds itself in a real predicament.
AQAP has certainly executed individuals it has captured but all of these individuals have been men the organization has accused and - in its own loose court system - convicted of attacking the organization, whether as members of the Yemeni security services or as spies working for the Yemeni or Saudi governments.
The other group of individuals it has captured have been Yemeni soldiers and AQAP has been very careful not to execute these. Primarily, because it is waging its own hearts and minds campaign in southern Yemen and it is wary of turning off the population against.
(There is a lot here, but the short version is that the organization knows that to succeed it needs much more support on the ground, and I think the bin Laden documents when they are released will support my reading.)
For instance following the Battle of Marib in 2009, AQAP released soldiers after getting them to promise they wouldn't attack AQAP anymore. And it currently holds 73 other soldiers it has captured that it wants to trade for the release of AQAP prisoners in Yemeni jails. Yemen hasn't budged and I doubt Saudi will either.
So what does this mean for AQAP? It has only choices: it can execute the deputy consul and risk alienating the broader population it is attempting to win over - remember al-Khalidi isn't a soldier and isn't actively combating AQAP, it can hold him indefinitely which doesn't get their prisoners out of jail, or it can try to negotiate separately with his family or tribe back in Saudi although how that would benefit the organization is unclear.
My point in all of this is simply this: as AQAP attempts to play more of a governing and service provider role in Yemen it is more susceptible and has to check some of its actions against public opinion - witness the recent interviews that Ansar al-Shariah keeps putting out featuring citizens giving their opinion of how the group is doing.
AQAP isn't the wild killing machine other branches of al-Qaeda have been (there is a method to what often appears as madness) and the more the US understands that method the better off it will be able to disrupt and defeat the organization.
But this means that the US can't target AQAP like it has gone after other branches of al-Qaeda, which is the subject of tomorrow's post.