The attempt to destroy Northwest Airlines flight 253 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day underscores the growing ambition of al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise, which has grown from a largely Yemeni agenda to become a player in the global Islamic jihad in the last year. Since merging with the al Qaeda franchise in Saudi Arabia last January and renaming itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it has stepped up operations in Yemen itself, struck into Saudi Arabia, and now operates on the global stage. The weak Yemeni government of President Ali Abdallah Salih, which has never fully controlled the country and now faces a host of growing problems, will need significant American support to defeat AQAP.
Al Qaeda has long been active in Yemen, the original homeland of Osama bin Laden’s family, and one of its first major terror attacks was conducted in Aden in 2000, when an al Qaeda cell nearly sank the USS Cole. A year ago, the al Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged after the Saudi branch had been effectively repressed by the Saudi authorities under the leadership of Deputy Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayif. The new AQAP showed its claws last August, when it almost assassinated the prince with a suicide bomber who had passed through at least two airports on the way to his attempt on Nayif.
The same bombmakers who produced that device probably also manufactured the bomb that Omar al Farooq Abdulmutallab used on Flight 253. In claiming credit for the Detroit attack, AQAP highlighted how they had built a bomb that “all the advanced, new machines and technologies and the security boundaries of the world’s airports” had failed to detect. They praised their “mujahedin brothers in the manufacturing sector” for building such a “highly advanced device,” and promised that more such attacks will follow.
Yemen has sought to repress al Qaeda off and on for the last decade, with little success. The Saleh government has other more immediate problems on its plate, in particular a rebellion among Shia Zaydi tribes known as Houthis in the north that has escalated in the last two months with attacks by the rebels into Saudi territory. The southern part of the country, which only merged with the north in 1990 and fought a bitter civil war in 1994 when it tried to break away, is hostile to the Saleh government and is looking for a chance to split off again. The economy is weak and heavily dependent on dwindling oil reserves, and the majority of the 23 million Yemenis are illiterate and poor.
The Obama administration has offered Saleh additional military assistance, and has encouraged the government to strike hard at al Qaeda hideouts in the last few weeks. The attacks have killed some AQAP leaders, but it is unclear exactly how serious a blow these attacks have inflicted on the group as a whole. AQAP has vowed revenge for the strikes, which it blames on an alliance between America, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Saleh government.
AQAP has also provided refuge for the Yemeni-American cleric Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was in contact with U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan, who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas on November 5, 2009. In an interview with Al Jazeera released on December 23, Awlaki said he had encouraged Nidal to kill his fellow soldiers because they were preparing to go to Afghanistan and were part of the Zionist-Crusader alliance that al Qaeda says it is fighting. The next day, December 24, Awlaki was reported to be among those killed in a Yemeni-American strike on the AQAP leadership, but that is still unconfirmed. In claiming credit for the Christmas Day airline attack, AQAP also lauded the Fort Hood massacre and urged other American Muslims to emulate Nidal Hassan.
Al Qaeda has always found weak and failing states like Yemen to be its best staging bases and sanctuaries. Along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia, Yemen offers an ideal location to operate with little outside interference. The president has been right to focus additional resources on combating AQAP, but the battle has just begun. If the Yemeni state becomes further destabilized, bin Laden’s cadre in the Arabian Peninsula will have more room to operate.
The attack on the Amsterdam-Detroit flight also shows that al Qaeda remains obsessed with striking the American airline industry, a target it has gone after repeatedly since 1999. If AQAP has now been told by the al Qaeda core leadership to take on the job, we can probably assume that other al Qaeda franchises in North Africa, Iraq, Southeast Asia and elsewhere have also been pressed to attack.