A statement purportedly by al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch -- al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- expresses support for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), the Yemen Times reported on Tuesday.
“We announce solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the crusade. Their blood and injuries are ours and we will surely support them,” the newspaper quoted the AQAP statement as saying.
“We stand by the side of our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the American and Iranian conspiracy and their agents of the apostate Gulf rulers.”
The statement went on to offer ISIS fighters tips on how to avoid airstrikes, like those President Obama ordered against the jihadists in northern Iraq 12 days ago.
“Based on our experience with drones, we advise our brothers in Iraq to be cautious about spies among them because they are a key factor in setting goals; be cautious about dealing with cellphones and internet networks; do not gather in large numbers or move in large convoys; spread in farms or hide under trees in the case of loud humming of warplanes; and dig sophisticated trenches because they reduce the impact of shelling,” the statement said.
The U.S. considers AQAP the most active of the various al-Qaeda affiliates, and has long conducted a campaign of drone strikes against the group.
ISIS meanwhile has been viewed as a growing threat to the United States. Last January, ISIS leader Ibrahim al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) warned the U.S. that the group would soon be “in direct confrontation” with America, and the threats have increased since the airstrikes began this month.
Wire services reported Monday on an ISIS video featuring a statement warning that it will attack Americans “in any place” and vowing, “we will drown all of you in blood.”
On Tuesday ISIS posted a video showing the beheading of an American journalist who went missing in Syria in 2012, and threatened to kill another U.S. journalist it holds captive, unless the airstrikes stop. It also warned Obama that his actions “will result in the bloodshed of your people.”
If authentic, an AQAP statement in support of ISIS would be significant since al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly disavowed ISIS last year, after al-Badri made a bid for leadership of all al-Qaeda elements among the anti-Assad forces in Syria.
At the time the presumably Pakistan-based Zawahiri declared the al-Nusrah Front to be the only al-Qaeda affiliate engaged in the anti-Assad campaign, and instructed al-Badri to stick to Iraq. The order was ignored, and ISIS continued its violent operations in both Syria and Iraq.
Ever since ISIS last June declared a “caliphate” across areas in controls in both countries and called on Muslims everywhere to pledge loyalty to al-Badri – now calling himself “Caliph Ibrahim” – observers have been closely watching the response from al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
Al-Nusrah and other groups quickly rejected the caliphate declaration, as did some leading radical Sunni figures, including the Qatar-based cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. AQAP’s response has been awaited, as has one from Zawahiri himself.
Some experts have warned that as ISIS’ notoriety grows, al-Qaeda may seek to carry out a major terrorist attack to demonstrate its ongoing ability and relevance, with AQAP seen as the most likely affiliate to do so.
On Sunday, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers gave a similar warning, and mentioned plotting in Yemen in particular.
AQAP attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day 2009, but the would-be bomber was restrained after trying detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. In October 2010 the group failed in a bid to ship bombs to the U.S., hidden in packages on commercial cargo planes.
Yemen Times quoted a Yemeni strategic affairs specialist as saying some AQAP members were in Syria and Iraq, affiliated with ISIS, while some ISIS gunmen were training al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen.
Saeed Al-Jamhi said AQAP appeared to be divided over ISIS, with one faction supporting it and another not.
The faction supportive of ISIS, he said, was headed by Jalal Baleedi, an AQAP terrorist blamed for the abduction earlier this month of 14 Yemeni soldiers. Photos and video subsequently released showed some of the soldiers being beheaded.
Attorney-General Eric Holder voiced “extreme” concerns last month about a rising terror threat from Yemen, specifically intelligence that AQAP bomb makers were in Syria joining forces with jihadists there.
“That’s a deadly combination,” Holder said at the time, “where you have people who have the technical knowhow along with the people who have this kind of fervor to give their lives in support of a cause that is directed at the United States and directed at its allies. And it’s something that gives us really extreme, extreme concern.”
Al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia established AQAP in 2009 and the State Department designated the affiliate as a foreign terrorist organization early the following year.
According to data compiled by the non-partisan New America Foundation, as many as 96 militants have been killed in Yemen by U.S. drone strikes targeting AQAP this year alone.
A 2011 airstrike killed Yemeni-American cleric and AQAP propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.