Yemen: The New Terror Trouble

Posted: Mar 01, 2011 11:57 AM
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be Osama bin Laden’s most dangerous faction.

In the March issue of Townhall Magazine, Townhall contributing editor and longtime foreign affairs analyst Peter Brookes explains how a little-known, far-off state such as Yemen can unexpectedly become the source of big trouble. Much like Afghanistan in the period after the end of the Cold War through late 2001 turned out to be incredibly significant, Yemen could see a similar fate -- threatening stability not only in the region but here in the U.S. as well.

Yemen, now a nation of 23 million but once the seemingly harmless ancient crossroads of the frankincense and myrrh trade, may currently be the location of the most active and perilous element of al Qaeda in existence today.

Failed, failing or troubled states can provide the ungoverned lands, which produce fertile soil for groups like al Qaeda and its factions to plant the seeds of deadly terrorist operations.

Recent terror plots out of Yemen against the United States are reasonable evidence of this.

Below are excerpts from the Peter's feature story, "Yemen: The New Terror Trouble." His important, full report is available exclusively in the March issue of Townhall Magazine.

It turns out that we now know al Qaeda has long had a presence in Yemen, “well before the United States had even identified the group or recognized that it posed a significant threat,” according to State Department Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman.

In what some consider al Qaeda’s first attack, a Yemeni terrorist cell bombed a hotel in the port city of Aden in 1992 where U.S. service members were staying while transiting to the United Nations peacekeeping mission “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia.

But Yemen and al Qaeda came more fully to our attention with another attack in Aden, this time on USS Cole in 2000 when a small boat filled with explosives struck the American destroyer while it was docked pier-side, killing 17 sailors and injuring another 39. ...

Following a few years of successful post-9/11 counterterror cooperation with Washington against al Qaeda, including a successful U.S. Predator drone strike on a senior al Qaeda leader, Sanaa (Yemen’s capital) became embroiled in issues of internal instability, including a rebellion and a secessionist movement that gripped the government’s attention. Sanaa’s dire domestic distractions coincided with neighboring Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on al Qaeda within its borders after a number of terror plots and attacks there against such targets as major oil facilities (e.g., Abqaiq), foreign living compounds and the U.S. consulate in Jeddah.

Unfortunately, sometimes fighting terror can be like hitting a pillow: A punch to one spot on the pillow leads to a feathery bulge in another spot. Indeed, the Saudi punch led to a terror bulge not in Saudi Arabia but across the border in Yemen. ...

In 2006, more than 20 jailed al Qaeda members escaped under suspicious circumstances from a Yemeni prison, including some who were involved in the USS Cole bombing. Unfortunately, the prison breakout, added to the influx of Saudi operatives and Sanaa’s other domestic challenges, created a perfect storm in Yemen. In 2009, Yemeni and Saudi al Qaeda merged into one organization: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), now led by Nasir al Wahishi, one of those who escaped jail in 2006. ...

The first inkling that AQAP was moving beyond its regional goals of toppling the Yemeni and Saudi governments to a more global strategy came in November 2009 when U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hassan, who had contact with AQAP, opened fire at Fort Hood, killing 13 and wounding 29.

The next month, an AQAP operative from Nigeria, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to bring down an Amsterdam-to-Detroit Northwest Airlines flight over the Motor City on Christmas Day by getting off plastic explosives sewn into his underwear.

Then, in October 2010, AQAP attempted to strike America again. This time it was via the now-infamous plot, which modified printer ink cartridges into bombs that were then mailed to the United States from Yemen on American air freight shippers. ...

Adding to concern about AQAP is the presence among its senior leadership of one Anwar al Awlaki, an imam, recruiter and operational planner that some consider on par with Osama bin Laden in terms of the threat he poses to American security. This is because Awlaki is a U.S. citizen of Yemeni descent. Having lived here as a child as well as attended college in the United States, he has an understanding of this country, Americans and the English language others of his evil ilk do not.

He left the United States for the United Kingdom sometime in 2002 but is believed to have had contact with some of the 9/11 hijackers before the attack. Some even speculate that he may have had some prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. Since then, he has called for the killing of Americans “without hesitation” and reportedly been promoted to a commander in al Qaeda—and probably has a key role in the publishing of AQAP’s English-language, online propaganda magazine Inspire. ...

Al Qaeda, of course, hopes to take advantage of any antigovernment sentiment or disorder among the populace, offering support for the southern secessionist movement and playing off ties Sanaa has with (unpopular) Washington to try to fill its ranks with foot soldiers and sympathizers.

Indeed, recent tremors of political dissent in the region may be just what al Qaeda had been hoping for.

Read the whole report in the March issue of Townhall Magazine.