While Dutch authorities have released the two Yemeni men arrested in Amsterdam on suspicion of preparing for a terrorist attack, the wider issue of the growing terrorist threat in Yemen remains an important topic. Indeed, the Washington Post recently reported that the CIA views al Qaeda in Yemen as “the most urgent threat to U.S. security.”
There is no void of information regarding al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Concerned leaders, analysts and scholars have long followed and written about al Qaeda’s presence there. A synthesis of some of the available information begins to show just how pressing the threat from Yemen has become.
A Growing Threat
Over the last couple decades, al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia and Yemen have conducted attacks with the aim of overthrowing their respective governments and instituting one based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law. Al Qaeda and the jihadist cause have a longstanding presence in Yemen, pre-dating the September 11 attacks. For instance, the Yemeni government was sympathetic to bin Laden and his mujahedeen during the Afghan-Russian War, and the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole was attacked at the Yemen port of Aden. The concept of fighting in the name of Islam has a salience in Yemen, one that resonates with several generations, particularly among some of the disenchanted tribes in southern and southeastern Yemen.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen is nothing new. The ongoing War on Terror, however, has had an unintended effect on terrorist cells in the Arabian Peninsula.
An effective Saudi counterterrorism campaign severely cost the al Qaeda groups operating in Saudi Arabia. Operatives in Saudi were arrested, rehabilitated or (more commonly) kicked across the border into Yemen. The “terrorist at large” population grew larger still when some Guantanamo Bay detainees were released and sent to Yemen.
Because the Yemeni government holds a tenuous grasp on national security, and because there are areas in Yemen where the population harbors strong hostilities against the government, al Qaeda cells in the region have a relative safe haven – safer at least than the rugged Afghan and Pakistani backcountry where Osama bin Laden hides.
An Ominous Blessing
Since 9/11, the War on Terror has largely crippled al Qaeda – the original al Qaeda groups, including those led by bin Laden. With thinned ranks, their movements continuously watched and the strong military presence in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his crew have had their operational capability stunted.
Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia was not fairing much better. With low funding and few places to run, the al Qaeda operatives in Saudi and Yemen pooled their resources. In 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni al Qaeda branches merged under the banner of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Their union was blessed, so to speak, by the most senior AQ leaders based in Pakistan and Afghanistan (called AQ Core). This meant three things:
1. AQAP was given legitimacy as a regional AQ force.
2. AQAP receives funding from AQ Core to continue jihad against the Saudi government and to keep the Yemeni government and infrastructure unstable.
3. In return for funding and legitimacy, AQAP operatives are also used for international attacks, of the sort for which AQ Core is known (e.g., 9/11, USS Cole, etc.).
The AQ Core saw advantages to a unified force in the Yemen-Hijaz region. One consideration they certainly had was for the usefulness of lawless spaces. Mountainous, rural regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan were ideal grounds for training, planning attacks and eluding pursuers. However, the allied forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani campaigns against the Taliban and al Qaeda meant lawlessness was slipping away.
But not in Yemen.
That’s why AQAP has become the sharp end of the al Qaeda spear. They can gather and plan in a way few other al Qaeda groups can – without stiff interference. Fortunately, the sharp end of the spear is still fairly dull, at least in AQAP’s operations abroad.
Who’s in Charge?
AQAP leadership is a collection of terrorists to be taken seriously. The head is Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Osama bin Laden’s former secretary. His deputy is Said Ali al-Shihri, who was a Guantanamo Bay detainee before his release in 2007. They are joined by Qasim al Rimi, senior military commander and founder of Al Qaeda in Yemen (before it became AQAP). And looming somewhere is Anwar al Awlaki, an American now thought to be living in Yemen. He is an al Qaeda trainer and recruiter who has been tied to the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hasan, and to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber.
AQAP enjoys a relative autonomy from the AQ Core. They set their own agendas and plan their own attacks without the need for approval from bin Laden and other AQ leaders. Therefore, while AQ Core’s ideology and modus operandi can reveal some of AQAP’s motivations and objectives, it is just as important to understand the group’s goals on their own terms.
The Near and Far Enemy
As mentioned above, one condition for the AQ Core blessing was the use of AQAP operatives for attacks abroad. While the driving ideology for violent jihad is similar for AQ Core and AQAP, their objectives are different. The al Qaeda cells on the Arabian Peninsula have historically been focused on weakening or bringing down the Saudi government and to some extent the Yemeni government as well, what is called the near enemy.
AQ Core, however, is focused on the far enemy – the all-inclusive “West” – which has led to multiple attacks against U.S. and European targets. With its operational capability limited, AQ Core has essentially outsourced their transnational objectives to AQAP.
Looking to events over the past year, it is clear AQAP is attacking both targets.
In 2009, AQAP terrorist Abdullah Asiri shared a Ramadan dinner with Assistant Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the director of Yemen’s counterterrorism campaign. Asiri detonated concealed explosives but succeeded only in killing himself, not bin Nayef. There have been an additional thirty or more attacks focused on critical elements in the Yemeni intelligence and security sectors over the past several months.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was an AQAP operative (who said he received training and guidance from the aforementioned al Awlaki). He attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear aboard a Northwest flight to Detroit, what is clearly an attack aimed at America. Al Awlaki is also believed to have been Nidal Hasan’s trainer and mentor, with the Fort Hood shooting another example of AQAP targeting the far enemy.
Though the current AQAP force is poorly trained for international attacks (e.g., Abdulmutallab), particularly when compared with the terrorists who attacked on 9/11, AQAP operatives are nevertheless a threat to the United States – like a stray bullet, uncertain exactly when, where and if it will strike. Beyond this, AQAP’s objectives are a threat to U.S. interests in the region, to the Saudi government and to other countries on the Arabian Peninsula.
But perhaps the most important point about AQAP is this: they are funded, armed and committed to perpetrating further atrocities. They see the United States as their enemy, and as you read this, they are likely preparing for their next attack.
Justin Hienz is Managing Editor for Security Debrief and a Senior Account Executive at Adfero Group.