A Dangerous Development: Al-Qaeda Uses Drones in Its Yemen Attacks

Sheba Intelligence | 2023-09-22 06:40 AM UTC



    A drone strike hit forces loyal to the Yemeni government in Shabwa province, eastern Yemen, on May 12 of this year. The strike targeted a location far from the front lines. The Ansar Allah (Houthi) group usually hits such sites. A week later, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack.


It was shocking news. After a stagnation of its activities between 2019 and 2021 - to the point where it was considered in its "weakest phase since it announced its existence in 2009"- AQAP has reappeared in the southern Yemeni governorates. It seems more organized, with a hazardous armament owned by one of its most crucial branches.


The terrorist organization did not possess drones before that. The first observation of the presence of drones in the hands of Al-Qaeda was in April 2022, when it published a video recording of what it said was a correspondent for "Ansar al-Sharia in Al-Bayda," in central Yemen, where the organization maintained its presence during the war. It was also present in Abyan, Shabwa, Marib, and Hadramaut, with sleeper cells in Al-Mahra, the Hadhramaut coast, Aden, and Lahj - according to the 2023 United Nations report.


Al-Qaeda has gradually directed its activities towards the southern governorates since 2022, and two-thirds of its activities occurred in Shabwa and Abyan provinces between 2022 and mid-2023. Since mid-2022, no violent interactions have been recorded between the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group and Al-Qaeda, and their relationship culminated in early 2023 with the jihadist organization announcing a prisoner exchange deal with Ansar Allah.


Unlike the conventional attacks that took place until May, the attacks using drones are considered a significant and dangerous change in the capabilities of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. It coincided with the escalation of the organization's field operations in Shabwa and Abyan against its enemies, particularly the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces. In August 2022, the STC fighters launched a military operation, dubbed "Arrows of the East," against what it described as terrorist organizations.


According to the organization's propaganda tools, the drone attacks are part of an operation launched in September 2022 in response to the STC operation. The terrorist group called its operation "Arrows of Truth."


It is noted that the organization used eight drone attacks in one area, "Al-Musaina District," in Shabwa Governorate.


The details of the attacks are as follows:








Type of Explosive





May 12





Drone Carrying Mortar Shells






May 16





Drone Carrying Hand Grenades





May 20





Drone Carrying Hand Grenades



One soldier killed, and a site commander injured


May 23





Drone Carrying Hand Grenades



A leading member of the Shabwa Defense was injured


June 12





Drone Carrying Hand Grenades







June 14





Drone Carrying Hand Grenades



Three injured


June 22





Drone Carrying Hand Grenades



Unknown number of injuries


July 03







Drone Carrying Hand Grenades


One soldier injured




The concentration of attacks in one area in Shabwa indicates that Al-Qaeda continues to rely on a decentralized structure that allows each cell to operate independently and communicate through specific individuals responsible for security to reduce the possibility of spies infiltrating its ranks.


A recording In March 2023 entitled "A Statement of Warning and Reminder to Criminal Spies” showed the organization’s continued state of concern, despite lengthy internal investigations, about spying on its militants in Yemen, estimated between 2,000 to 3,000 elements. Abu al-Hayja al-Hadidi, according to a source familiar with the organization’s details in Shabwa, runs the organization in Abyan and Shabwa.


Based on the nature of the organization’s drone attacks, they were carried out in several ways:


First: Single attacks

The organization launched attacks on the military barracks of the STC forces, targeting military vehicles and recruits, as happened in the first two attacks. It led to deaths and injuries among the Shabwa Defense Forces. Their offensive operation includes a raid on security sites or checkpoints.


Second: subsequent attacks

On the night of June 10, 11, Al-Qaeda attacked a Shabwa Defense military site in Al-Musaina, killing two soldiers and burning two vehicles. Media outlets loyal to government forces said they killed one of the organization's members and captured two others. The organization denied in a statement government reports that any of its members had been killed or captured.

In contrast to the raids in previous weeks, Al-Qaeda announced a drone attack on the same security checkpoint on June 12.

What is notable about this attack is that it came hours after the organization's "Shahid" platform published a new video by its leader, Khaled Batarfi, in which he threatened to kill the forces fighting the organization or what he described as "mercenaries affiliated with the Emirates."

Hours later, the same platform, "Shahid", published a new video entitled "The Truth About UAE Mercenaries in Yemen," in which the organization reviewed its previous attacks against government forces, including air attacks, ambushes, explosive devices, and direct confrontations.


Third: Assassinations

Al-Qaeda in Yemen is known for assassinating Yemeni officials using silencer pistols or explosive devices. However, on May 23, a drone attempted to assassinate Shabwa Defense Brigadier General Ahmed Mohsen Al-Sulaimani. It failed to kill him, but he sustained wounds. The terrorist organization also attempted to assassinate him through explosive devices on the road, targeting the ambulance.

On May 20, the organization launched an attack on another military site in the same district, which, according to the organization's propaganda platforms, led to the injury of the commander of the military site, Saeed Al-Khabla. Media loyal to the STC indicated that only a soldier was injured.

Following this attack, the Shabwa Defense Forces opened fire on gunmen believed to be from Al-Qaeda in the Madhab Al-Dhahab Mountain, which extends to the Al-Mahfad area in Abyan, where the organization is carrying out operations against their enemy forces.

Al-Qaeda operatives' use of drones for assassination is considered an extremely dangerous development, putting many military commanders or those loyal to them in constant danger. It also reveals how close the organization's agents are to military leaders.

In the June 10/11 operation, the organization published pictures of the vehicles directly from inside the military site that was targeted. This shows how close the organization's sources are and those who provide it with assistance on the ground.


Fourth: Monitoring the locations and opponents' armament

Al-Qaeda uses drones to survey the sites it targets before launching its attacks and determines the number of soldiers, vehicles, and even weapons available. The targeting of "Soleimani" also shows the organization's use of drones to track moving targets.



There is no accurate information about how Al-Qaeda obtained drones or trained on how to use them, as the Ansar Allah/Houthi movement is the current local party that owns the drones. Iran is accused of supplying the Houthi group with drones.

The stagnation of Al-Qaeda between 2019-2021 and the resurgence of its activity served as a reminder of the serious threat and the growing operational capabilities that Al-Qaeda possesses.


What is agreed upon is that Al-Qaeda's use of drones is a risk with unsafe consequences. Some of these risks can be pointed out:


  •  This is a significant development in AQAP attacks. The drone attacks were widely used by ISIS in 2017 as the group fought for survival in Iraq and Syria.
  •  The organization's drone attacks do not threaten Yemen alone but instead have become a threat to the national security of the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, as the organization's change in strategy by transferring its activities to the southern provinces instead of attacking the "Ansar Allah" movement in Al-Bayda appears to mean that the organization returns to being a cross-border one. The presence of Saif al-Adel, the de facto leader of Al-Qaeda in Iran, could be one of the motives for changing the organization's strategy. Houthi drone attacks on vital Saudi and Emirati installations had previously caused significant damage to the economy.
  • Al-Qaeda's use of drones threatens international navigation in the Red Sea and near the Bab al-Mandab Strait, or Western and regional interests on land or at sea. Saif al-Adl can also use AQAP to conduct major operations to confirm his leadership over the global branch, despite doubt about his leadership - according to the United Nations report in February 2023. He will find nothing better than using drones in his attack.

Regardless of the vision for the future of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, its capability with its new strategy and the effectiveness of its qualitative weapons to bring about a change in its situation in the southern governorates and be empowered based on political and social factors, it has now become a threat to the region and the world.