When President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, announced recently that the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had surpassed Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan-based Al Qaeda as America’s greatest terrorist threat, it was confirmation of what intelligence analysts have already long suspected.
Brennan’s pronouncement of AQAP’s rise came shortly after the release of the Obama administration’s annual review on the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation. With its strongholds in northwest Pakistan under increased assault from the Pakistani Army, and its senior leadership rapidly depleted by US predator drones, Al Qaeda in Pakistan is in its most weakened condition since September 2001, the report said.
The report concluded that “Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has been depleted, the group’s safe haven is smaller and less secure, and its ability to prepare and conduct terrorist operations has been degraded in important ways.” Days later, Brennan told a forum audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that AQAP “is now the most operationally active node of the al Qaeda network.”
AQAP’s activity has included its involvement in two recent terrorist plots aimed at America: the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest airliner in 2009, and the October 2010 discovery of explosive devices in two cargo planes en route to the United States.
While both incidents were AQAP failures, it still hasn’t deterred the group from continuing on with its terrorist mission. Quite the contrary, as Brennan noted, “The group’s leadership clearly seeks to apply lessons learned from past attacks, including those of other groups. And their definition of success – stoking fear, even if their attacks fail – portends more such attacks.”
As if to confirm its newly elevated status, reports circulated within days of Brennan’s speech at Carnegie that AQAP was planning to poison the US food supply by targeting hotels and restaurants. Specifically, AQAP’s plan was to introduce harmful agents, such as ricin and cyanide, into salad bars and buffets at these properties.
Administration officials were quick to point out that AQAP did not have the capability to carry out such a plan. In fact, the plan itself falls outside of AQAP’s recently adopted strategy to forgo large, complex terrorist attacks in favor of smaller assaults on lesser value targets.
That new terror tactic was announced by AQAP in the November 2010 issue of Inspire, the group’s English online newspaper, which stated: “To bring down the U.S., we do not need to strike big. It is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch.”
However, while AQAP’s terrorist plots may be growing smaller in scope, its efforts to grow from a regional terrorist group to a transnational outfit have exponentially increased. These efforts have included an intensive campaign to recruit American Muslims, methods which include the widespread use of internet videos, online magazines such as Inspire, and the sermons of its most notorious cleric and top leader, the American Anwar Al Awlaki.
Awlaki, who is now hiding out in Yemen, has been linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused Christmas Day bomber, as well as to Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter who killed 13 people in 2009.
Awlaki has also been credited as being an inspirational leader to would-be Times Square Bomber, Faisal Shahzad; and Abdulhakim Muhammad, arrested for shooting two army recruiters in Arkansas in November 2009, killing one soldier and wounding the other.
Mirroring the rapid rise of AQAP, Awlaki himself has now joined the ranks of Osama bin Laden in the eyes of administration and intelligence officials. In a recent television interview, Attorney General Eric Holder said Al Awlaki was “on the same list with bin Laden. He’s on the list of people that worry me the most,” adding “We want to neutralize him. We’ll do whatever we can to do that.”
To underscore its commitment to neutralize Al Awlaki, the administration placed him on a CIA assassination hit list. However, much like its overall efforts to neutralize the entire AQAP organization, the results were unsuccessful.
For example, over the past year US military aid to Yemen increased from $70 million to $150 million. During that same period, a number of US airstrikes on Al Qaeda bases in Yemen were launched, ones long suspected, and ones just verified by the recent release of Wikileaks documents.
Despite those efforts and the continuing application of American pressure on the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) to rein in AQAP, the outcomes have been less than stellar, producing more friction between the two governments than actual results.
That view was neatly summed up by Brennan who said, “The relationship between Washington and Sanaa [Yemen’s capital] is, at times, marked by differences of view, tension, and even strong frustration by each side.”
Yet, if the ROYG’s ability and commitment to destroy AQAP is viewed as spotty in the eyes of the US, it may be understandable given the myriad of other problems that plague that poverty stricken nation.
For starters, in addition to fighting Al Qaeda forces, the ROYG finds itself engaged with open rebellion in its northern areas and a separatist movement in the south. The result has been a weakening of its control of the country, except for a tiny pocket outside the capital city of Sanaa.
Adding to Yemen’s internal strife is its incredibly high poverty level, one exacerbated by also having the world’s seventh highest population growth rate. The situation is so severe that, according to a UN spokesman, “There is no single other country in the world where we ever have seen such high levels of malnutrition.”
Unfortunately, while Yemen’s current economic situation is brutal, it only looks to get worse. While oil constitutes 75% of Yemen’s revenue, oil production has been declining in recent years, with estimates that its entire oil reserves will be depleted by 2021.
For a nation swelled by a large swath of unemployed and desperately impoverished people, young Yemini men are ripe for terrorist recruitment. Mohammed Abdel-Malik Mutawakel, a Yemini political science professor, explains the predicament of these men: “The economy is closed to them. They will fight then, either through al-Qaida, the southerners, or any other way.”
So, today, drenched in economic and political chaos, Yemen has now become the logistical and training center for global jihadists. As one intelligence official said of Yemen, “It’s now Pakistan in the heart of the Arab world.”
For Americans, who have seen the War on Terror ebb and flow over the years, it’s a sobering reminder that closing one terrorist door only serves to open another.