A Post-Mortem Analysis of AQAP Tribal Implementer Tariq al-Dhahab

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Publication: Volume: 3 Issue: 2

By: Murad Batal Al-Shishani

Tariq Al-Dhahab

Full article available on mlm.jamestown.org

Unlike most of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) releases, the death of Tariq al-Dhahab was confirmed by al-Fajr Media Centre, al-Qaeda’s official media arm, instead of Al-Malhim, AQAP’s media arm. This could represent a new effort designed to centralize the “condolence” statements and messages of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

At 35 years old, al-Dhahab was a tribal strongman, Anwar al-Awlaki’s brother-in-law, and the leader of AQAP’s newly formed “Ansar al-Shari’a” in al-Bayda Governorate. The stated aim of Ansar al-Shari’a is to implement Shari’a in various areas of Yemen. On February 16, 2012, al-Dhahab was reportedly killed by his half-brother Hizzam al-Dhahab (Ma’rib Press, February 16). Hizzam was accused of receiving orders from Yemeni authorities to attack his brother. [1] In ordering Tariq al-Shabab’s death, Yemeni authorities were trying to exploit an old tribal rift in the leadership of the al-Dhahab clan.

Hizzam al-Dhahab, who supported Yemeni authorities and the Saleh regime, fundamentally disagreed with Tariq’s ties to AQAP. With Tariq’s death Hizzam, his older brother, temporarily held leadership of the Yemeni city of Rada’a. Tariq’s AQAP affiliates were quick to retaliate to the killing of Tariq. They initiated an attack on Hizzam al-Dhahab’s home, killing Hizzam by planting a car bomb. Hizzam was dead less than twenty-four hours after the attack and death of his brother Tariq.

In the al-Fajr Media Centre statement AQAP said: “Sheikh Tariq al-Dhahab…was the first among tribes that resorted to rule and judge by Shari’a. His home was a shelter for those oppressed and the refuge of the needing persons.” Among other laudatory mentions, the statement described al-Dhahab as wise, patient, polite and brave. [2]

AQAP Affiliate Not Member

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s statement and the prompt revenge they conducted show the importance of al-Dhahab to them, although he was not a formal member of AQAP as many media outlets have suggested. [3]

Al-Dhahab’s connection to AQAP as an affiliate became apparent in mid-January 2012 when fighters led by him seized the al-Amiriyah historical site and announced Shari’a rule in the city of Rada’a, Yemen. Al-Dhahab later withdrew from the city following a tribal mediation that led to the release of his brother, Nabil al-Dhahab, and AQAP members held by Yemeni authorities.

Nabil was arrested by Syrian authorities in 2006 while travelling to Iraq to join the jihadi fight against American troops. Syria repatriated Nabil to Yemen. Tariq then sought Nabil’s release from the custody of Yemeni authorities. In 2007, Tariq appealed to Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, asking him to release Nabil with the threat that his tribe, “Qaifah” – one of the largest in Yemen, will do what it takes to release their sons. [4] Later, in return for Nabil’s freedom, Tariq agreed to withdraw AQAP troops from Rada’a but he reneged on this agreement.

Nabil al-Dhahab and Kaid al-Dhahab, Tariq and Hizzam’s brothers, are said to be taking steps to consolidate Rada’a in the wake of the family massacre. Tariq al-Dhahab was accused on multiple occasions of being a puppet of Saleh and executing his policies in order to send a message to the West that the alternative to his regime is al-Qaeda. Tariq denied the allegations, retorting that he could not be aligned with a regime that “imprisons our children, is loyal to the U.S. and does not rule by Shari’a.” [5]

AQAP Integration into Yemeni Tribes

Tariq al-Dhahab’s strongest link to AQAP was his relation to American-born Yemeni cleric and prominent AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki (killed in September 2011) who was married to al-Dhahab’s sister. [6]

To al-Qaeda, Tariq represented the ideal incubator for AQAP’s strategy in Yemen as a strong tribal leader with affiliations to AQAP leadership. AQAP in Yemen aims to present an alternative to Northern and Southern Yemeni leadership and he was seen as a good representative of both regional groups in the AQAP (Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 8 Issue 9, March 4, 2010). In addition, AQAP seeks to urge Yemeni tribes to adopt al-Qaeda’s Islamist ideology and forming Ansar al-Shari’a served as an ideal representation of that vision.

AQAP’s ideologue Adel al-Abbab (Militant Leadership Monitor, Volume: 1 Issue 3, March 30, 2010) stated that the idea of forming Ansar al-Shari’a served to attract local people to Shari’a rule by turning it “into popular action instead of keeping it as an elite one.” [7]

Al-Dhahab absorbed AQAP’s strategies. In an interview with al-Sharq, the newly launched Saudi newspaper, al-Dhahab affirmed the success of AQAP in Yemen when he said that Yemeni troops will not launch an attack against him because “we are among a fierce and supportive tribal [environment], and any step by the state or the army or the Republican Guard will be violently responded by tribes, in support of religion and dignity…the Republican Guard knows this sort of thing and the army learned a lesson from the confrontation with Ansar al-Shari’a in Abyan [a few weeks ago].” [8]

Furthermore, in the same interview he answered the question of why AQAP switched from secret activism to the public arena by saying: “this is due to the strength of Ansar al-Shari’a and the broad popularity they enjoy [among Yemenis who had] tried all partisan narrow projects.” [9]


AQAP has lost a major supporter and implementer of Yemen strategies. Tariq al-Dhahab serves as an example of the methods of infiltration used by AQAP to integrate into the Yemeni tribal structure. AQAP’s statement eulogizing al-Dhahab reads: “we urge tribal leaders and sheikhs in Yemen to advocate Shari’a to prevail Justice and security…as seen in Abyan and Shabowah” (as-ansar.com, February 19). AQAP will continue to pursue affiliations with tribal leaders who can, similar to al-Dhahab, act as an implementer of their strategies on the local and community level.

Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East.


1. Alkhaleej.ae, February 16, 2012, http://www.alkhaleej.ae/portal/1376459b-073e-44d5-9828-b1b99b5f5194.aspx.

2. ns2.as-ansar.com, February 19, 2012, http://ns2.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=56079.

3. Tariq al Dahab, Yemen Al Qaeda Leader, Dead, Says Terrorist Group; Huffington Post, February 20, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/20/tariq-al-dahab-dead-al-qaeda-yemen_n_1288782.html.

4. marebpress.net, November 5, 2007, http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?sid=8208.

5. algomhoriah.net, January 24, 2012, http://www.algomhoriah.net/news_details.php?sid=38022.

6. Ibid.

7. Is al-Qaeda establishing a small Shari’a emirate in Yemen? opendemocracy.net, May 19, 2011, http://www.opendemocracy.net/murad-batal-al-shishani/is-al-qaeda-establishing-small-shari%E2%80%99-emirates-in-yemen.

8. alsharq.net.sa, January 21, 2012, http://www.alsharq.net.sa/2012/01/21/94184.

9. Ibid.

February 29, 2012 12:59 PM Age: 1 days

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