To its displeasure, Yemen is often described in media publications as Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland. The Bin Ladens migrated from Wadi Doan, a valley in the Hadramawt, to Saudi Arabia in the early 19th century. Popular support for al-Qaeda matches that in other Arab states, but, as a consequence of the limited reach of the state, active al-Qaeda supporters, many of them veterans of the Afghan war, have roamed the country, at times under tribal protection. In 1998, a presumed al-Qaeda cell killed four of sixteen tourist hostages after being attacked by the army. Al-Qaeda cells bombed the US Navy destroyer USS Cole in 2000 and the French tanker Limburg in 2002. Several oil pipelines have been bombed in the eastern lowlands. In 2007, seven Spanish tourists were killed by al-Qaeda gunmen near Marib, and in 2008, two Belgian tourists were killed in Marib, along with their Yemeni drivers. In 2008, American buildings in Sanaa were shelled.
Yemen and the United States are officially cooperating in the battle against al-Qaeda. American CIA agents are believed to be operating in Yemen. In 2002, these agents hunted down and killed Qaid Sinan al-Harthi, better known as Abu Ali, one of those held responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, by firing a missile from an unmanned aircraft at the car in which he was traveling with five other suspects. The United States has accused the Yemeni government of being soft on al-Qaeda after another USS Cole bomber made a second spectacular escape from prison. The United States wanted him extradited, but Yemen refused, insisting on the liberation of Yemeni detainees held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp first.
In 2009 the formation of AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) was announced, as a merger of the Saudi and the Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda. Shortly thereafter the United States declared AQAP a major threat, greater than the al-Qaeda branches in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two attacks have been traced back to AQAP. On 25 December 2009, Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried unsuccessfully to ignite a bomb in an airplane approaching Detroit. Nine months later packages containing explosives inside a printer were sent from Sanaa to two Jewish organizations in Chicago; they were intercepted. American-born Anwar al-Awlaki was seen as the mastermind of these operations and was labeled leader of AQAP. Al-Awlaki was killed in an air attack by a US drone on 30 September 2011.
Several joint US-Yemeni military operations targeted presumed bases of AQAP in the east and southeast of Yemen. These operations, usually by unmanned drones, backfired on several occasions when they missed their targets and killed innocent civilians. This resulted in growing opposition to US involvement, which, in the absence of proof of a clear AQAP threat, was seen as support for the Saleh regime. This drove more people into the arms of armed groups opposing Saleh. As there were AQAP members among them, these groups were often branded collectively as al-Qaeda.
In an interview in April 2011, a leader named Adil al-Abab called his group Mujahidin (Fighters in Jihad), fighting for the establishment of Sharia (Islamic law) in Yemen. Al-Abab preferred the name Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Sharia) in encounters with locals but admitted that he felt part of al-Qaeda. He reported a number of successes and a growing presence in large parts of Yemen, because ‘people could see that we bring security’. Al-Abab claimed that his group was allied with the Afghani Taliban and the Somali Shabaab.
An obscure war took place in Abyan, just east of Aden, during the revolt of 2011. AQAP reportedly took part in these battles, and there were reports of fighting between opposing army units, local militias, and tribal groups. In June 2011, the battles spread from Abyan and approached the city of Aden. The escape of 63 political prisoners from a prison in al-Mukalla was presumably organized by AQAP, some of whose members were set free. It was reported that Somali pirates had been using the island of Socotra for some time as a port for the resupply of food, arms, and fuel. These reports remain unconfirmed.