Islamic Army of Aden

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Islamic Army of Aden

LEADERS: Abu al-Hassan; Khaled Abdennabi



In 1998, the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA), also called the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, began to issue communiqués detailing its goals and objectives for Yemen and the rest of the world. Highest on its list was the removal of the members of the Yemeni government, to be tried under shari'a law and replaced by a government that would strictly adhere to the principles of Islamic law. The group voiced its support for Osama bin Laden and sought operations against U.S. and other Western powers' interests, which would force their withdrawal from the region. Since 1998, the group has engaged in both bombings and kidnappings to bring about their goals. As a result, they have been listed for sanctions as terrorists under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1333. In Arabic, the group is known as Jaysh Adan-Abiyan al-Islami.

Geographically, Yemen—particularly the Gulf of Aden—holds strategic value. The port operates as a refueling station and overlooks the westward flow of maritime traffic out of the Persian Gulf. All ships that travel from the Red Sea through the Suez Canal utilize Aden. This strategic importance was identified by Osama bin Laden in his "Declarations of War."


The Republic of Yemen did not exist until 1990 when Northern Yemen, known as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), and the Southern People's Democratic Republic of Yemen agreed to unify. Northern Yemen had operated under Turkish rule until 1918. It was then controlled by Imam Yahya and later his son, Ahmad, until 1962. With the assistance of Egyptian President Nasser, the Imam was overthrown and the revolutionary forces declared the Yemen Arab Republic in 1970.

Southern Yemen operated under British control until 1965 when two rival groups sought to overthrow British rule. After two violent years, the British pulled out. By 1969, with assistance from the USSR, the radical wing of the Marxist movement in Yemen gained power and declared the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Throughout the 1970s, the government of the PDRY maintained close ties with the Soviet Union and China and provided safe haven for Palestinian extremists.

By 1972, the governments of the YAR and the PDRY declared a desire to unify, although little progress was initially made toward that goal. In addition, beginning in 1979, the PDRY began to sponsor insurgency operations against the YAR. However, by 1989, after arbitration by the Arab League, the leaders of the YAR and the PDRY agree to unify under the terms drafted in 1981. On May 22, 1990, the Republic of Yemen (ROY) declared itself to international acceptance and was ratified by Yemenis by May 1991.

However, the celebration was short lived. By 1994, a group residing in the southern region declared the South's cessation from the ROY. Fighting in the civil war occurred mainly in the south and was quelled by July of that same year.

Although the Islamic Army of Aden did not officially appear until 1998, its history is intertwined with these aspects of Yemeni history. In 1998, the IAA issued its first communiqué expressing its goals. However, the group existed long before then. The leadership of the IAA is made up of individuals sent to Saudi Arabia for religious and military training in order to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In 1984, Yemen sent between 5,000 and 7,000 volunteers. These mujahideen (fighters) were trained in guerilla warfare tactics and many adopted the fundamentalist salafi sect of Sunni Islam.

Upon their return to Yemen, the mujahideen formed Jamiat al-Jihad and allied with the opposition to the socialists. During the 1994 civil war, these war veterans were used to suppress the cessationists residing in the south and undertook over 150 assassinations of Socialist Party members. As a reward for their success during the civil war, many of these religious fundamentalists were awarded ranking positions in the Education and Judicial branches of the Yemeni government. Many of the mujahideen saw this as an attempt to incorporate and control their religious movement. Individuals such as Zein al-Abidi Abu Bakr al-Mehdar, known as al-Hassan, were disillusioned by the government's choice to not strictly follow shari'a, or traditional Islamic law. Led by al-Hassan, like-minded salafi began to move away from the Yemeni government in 1996.

The Yemeni government denied the existence of the IAA until the group issued its first communiqué. The communiqué was issued in response to the U.S. strikes of Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, which were in retaliation for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The IAA expressed its support for Osama bin Laden and praised the embassy bombings. It called for the overthrow of the Yemeni government, who, the IAA believed, should be tried under shari'a law. The government would then be replaced with leadership that strictly adhered to the fundamentals of Islamic law. The group also sought operations against U.S. and Western interests, which would force the withdrawal of these influences on Yemen. In a subsequent communiqué, the IAA called for the resignation of the government.

In December 1998, the group initiated its operations against Western influences with the kidnapping of sixteen British, American, and Australian tourists, the largest incident of kidnapping in Yemen. The tourists were stopped at a roadblock in Mawdiyah. They were then taken to an IAA house where the IAA demanded the release of several comrades. Yemeni security forces surrounded the house. After negotiations failed, a firefight ensued. The IAA members used several of the hostages as human shields. As a result, four tourists were killed. Three of the kidnappers were also killed.

In October 1999, the leader of the operation and of the IAA, al-Hassan was convicted and sentenced to death by execution. Two other IAA members were sentenced to death and one was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Ten others were tried and acquitted. Despite threats that the IAA would retaliate, al-Hassan was executed by firing squad on October 17, 1999, within days of his conviction.

The IAA continued to operate after al-Hassan's death. The group claimed responsibility for the October 12, 2000, bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, a U.S. Naval vessel refueling in the port of Aden. A dinghy packed with explosives rammed the vessel, killing seventeen U.S. sailors and injuring thirty-nine. Both the U.S. and Australian intelligence services state that the bombings were orchestrated and acted out by al-Qaeda. Many believe that the bombing was organized and funded by al-Qaeda, but that the operatives came from the IAA.

In September 2001, the IAA was designated under Executive Order 13224 as a terrorist organization by the United States. In that same month, it was designated for sanctions under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1333. Nevertheless, the group continued to operate. On October 6, 2002, the IAA claimed responsibility for the bombing of a French refueling tank, the Limburg. The group claimed that its target had actually been a U.S. Navy vessel. Days later, and on the third anniversary of al-Hassan's execution, the spiritual leader of the IAA, Abu-Hamzah al-Masri, announced that the group had joined the al-Qaeda organization.



Little is known about Khaled Abdennabi. He was captured by Yemeni forces in 2003 after the attack on the medical convoy. Shortly there-after, he was pardoned and released.


Zein al-Abidi Abu Bakr al-Mehdar (Abu al-Hassan) was the founder of the IAA and a member of the salafi sect. He, along with other founding members of IAA, was trained in guerilla warfare tactics in preparation for fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In 1994, he assisted the Yemeni government to quell the civil war caused by the socialists in South Yemen, who had declared their intent to become independent from the Republic of Yemen. He was offered a position within the ruling party, but declined as it became clear that the government was not being run under strict adherence to Islamic law. In October 1999, al-Hassan was convicted of his participation in the December 1998 kidnapping of sixteen western tourists, which led to the death of four tourists. He was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on October 17, 1999.

The most recent activity by the IAA occurred on June 21, 2003, with an attack on a military medical convoy, which wounded seven people. During arrests for the attack, Yemeni security forces discovered and seized cars packed with explosives, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades.

Western intelligence services estimate that there are a hundred core members to the IAA, who are both Yemeni and Saudi. These members reside in the United Kingdom, Sudan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Eritrea. The current leader is Khaled Abdennabi, or Khalid Abd al-Nabi al-Yazidi.


The philosophy of the IAA is rooted in the salafi sect of Sunni Islam and the belief that the Yemeni government should operate under strict adherence to Islamic law. Many of the members of the IAA were influenced toward salafi while in Saudi Arabia as they trained to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The philosophy is founded in the struggle to expel external influences from the Middle East.

The strategic importance of Aden is not merely geographic. Al-Hassan believed in a literal interpretation of the teaching of Muhammad that 12,000 holy warriors would emerge from Aden-Abyan to restore Islam. This idea is voiced again by Osama bin Laden in his "Declarations of War," as he asserts the strategic importance of the Yemen.

As a result, the IAA has employed tactics such as bombings and kidnappings to seek the expulsion of Western influences in Yemen. The highest profile kidnapping occurred in December 1998 when sixteen tourists were kidnapped from a roadblock. After failed negotiations, four of the tourists were killed. In addition to kidnappings, the IAA has engaged in bombings. Although the group claims responsibility for the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, blame is generally placed on the larger Islamic jihad organization, al-Qaeda. In addition, the IAA claimed responsibility for the bombing of a French oil tanker in 2003.


The Yemeni government denied the existence of the IAA until after the 1998 release of communiqués and currently maintains that the group has been disbanded. However, Australian and U.S. intelligence organizations estimate that there are approximately one hundred core members of IAA residing in the United Kingdom, Sudan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Eritrea. Simon Kerr writes that, "Most Yemenis ridicule the Islamic Army." The attempt on the part of the Yemeni government to incorporate the salafi into its ranks reinforces its belief that those within the group are of little threat. As such, current leader, Khaled Abd al-Nabi was arrested after the 2003 attack on the military convoy. Shortly after his arrest, he was pardoned and released.


The IAA officially emerged with the issuance of several communiqués.
The IAA claims responsibility for the attack on the French tanker, The Limburg.
Three Yemenis were convicted of bombings at the Port of Aden.
The IAA launches attack on military medical convoy, which injures seven people.
Yemeni security forces engage IAA members at a base in Harat. During arrests for the attack on the medical convoy, security forces find cache of weapons.
IAA led car bomb attacks planned for the U.S., British, and German embassies in capital of Sana'a are disrupted.

However, before his death, al-Hassan spoke of his involvement with the hostage taking in 1998, saying, "Dialogue between civilizations is useless. The only dialogue should be with bullets." As a result of comments like this and ties to the al-Qaeda network, the IAA has been renewed on both the U.S. and Australian terrorist watch-lists.


In 1998, the Islamic Army of Aden emerged with clear objectives: support of the international Islamic jihad led by Osama bin Laden, the removal and replacement of current Yemeni government to one based on strict adherence to Islamic law, and the expulsion of external influences on Yemen and the Middle East. These goals were founded in the original struggle of its leaders when they fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. During their military training, many began to follow salafi, a fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam, and sought to create Islamist governments. As a result, upon return from the Afghan war, some in the group were disillusioned by what they believed to be a lack of adherence to Islamic law on the part of the government. Consequently, they began in 1998 to move toward those goals.

Islamic Army of Aden (IAA) a.k.a. Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA)


The Islamic Army of Aden (IAA) emerged publicly in mid-1998 when the group released a series of communiqués that expressed support for Usama Bin Ladin, appealed for the overthrow of the Yemeni Government, and called for operations against U.S. and other Western interests in Yemen. IAA was first designated under EO 13224 in September 2001.


IAA has engaged in small-scale operations such as bombings, kidnappings, and small arms attacks to promote its goals. The group reportedly was behind an attack in June 2003 against a medical assistance convoy in the Abyan Governorate. Yemeni authorities responded with a raid on a suspected IAA facility, killing several individuals and capturing others, including Khalid al-Nabi al-Yazidi, the group's leader. Before that attack, the group had not conducted operations since the bombing of the British Embassy in Sanaa in October 2000. In 2001, Yemeni authorities found an IAA member and three associates responsible for that attack. In December 1998, the group kidnapped 16 British, American, and Australian tourists near Mudiyah in southern Yemen. Although Yemeni officials previously have claimed that the group is operationally defunct, their recent attribution of the attack in 2003 against the medical convoy and reports that al-Yazidi was released from prison in mid-October 2003 suggest that the IAA, or at least elements of the group, have resumed activity. Speculation after the attack on the USS Cole pointed to the involvement of the IAA, and the group later claimed responsibility for the attack. The IAA has been affiliated with al-Qa'ida. IAA members are known to have trained and served in Afghanistan under the leadership of seasoned mujahedin.


Not known.


Operates in the southern governorates of Yemen—primarily Aden and Abyan.


Not known.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

Since 1998, the group has engaged in many bombings and kidnappings. The most famous kidnapping occurred in December 1998 and resulted in the death of four hostages. Another result of the hostage crisis was the arrest and subsequent execution of the IAA leader, al-Hassan. Several years after his death, the IAA officially allied itself with al-Qaeda. The last known activity of the group occurred in 2003, but U.S. and Australian intelligence agencies approximate that the group still has a hundred core members.



Karmon, Ely. "The Bombing of the U.S.S. Cole: An Analysis of the Principle Suspects." International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism. October 24, 2000.

Kerr, Simon. "Yemen Cracks Down on Militants." Middle East Journal. December 1, 1999.

McGregor, Andrew. "Strike First." The World Today. December 1, 2002.

Web sites

FAS Intelligence Resource Program. "Islamic Army of Aden." 〈〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).

MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Database. "Aden Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA)." 〈〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).

National Security Australia. "Islamic Army of Aden (IAA)." 〈 Islamic_Army_of_Aden_-_Listed_11_April_2003〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).

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