Over the past two years,
AQAP possesses the right combination of operational expertise, communication with its supporters, ideological influence and transnational reach to elevate it to this position. Reaching such a conclusion is by nature imprecise science, but many pieces of evidence support it, in both AQAP's actions and words.
Terrorists want to be associated with the winning team, and over the last 21 months AQAP has managed to do something AQSL has not accomplished essentially since September 2001: attempt major attacks against the U.S. homeland or significant U.S. or other interests worldwide. In August 2009, AQAP nearly assassinated
AQAP has also mastered social media to reach and recruit followers. Through sophisticated, bilingual outreach, targeting both Arabic- and
Perhaps as importantly, AQAP spreads its English-language message through spoken word, in the online lectures of Yemen-based, American-born preacher Anwar al-Aulaqi, who seems to serve as a sort of chief AQAP ideologue and external operations figure. It's through his vast library of
Moreover, just as AQSL built its mythology on its anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, so has AQAP based its own narrative, in part, on its members' experiences in the crucible of detention at
Finally, there is no denying the relative freedom of movement AQAP enjoys, compared with AQSL. Yemen has for years been a permissive environment for al-Qaida. In fact, the first al-Qaida attack took place, almost unnoticed, in Yemen in 1992, against U.S. forces transiting Yemen for Somalia. In October 2000, al-Qaida attacked the USS Cole off the coast of Aden, Yemen. In February 2006, 23 al-Qaida members — including at least one involved in the Cole attack and AQAP leader al-Wahishi — escaped from a Yemeni prison.
The situation seems poised to improve for AQAP, given the sudden departure to Saudi Arabia of Yemen President
To be sure, AQAP's ascent to the pinnacle of the global al-Qaida conglomerate may only displace AQSL by a matter of shades, at least in the near term. Even with bin Laden's death, AQSL remains a lethal threat to U.S. interests. Moreover, absent a succession of major attacks on the U.S. homeland or other strategic interests, AQAP will strain to completely displace AQSL's long, rich and diverse mythology. Nevertheless, AQAP has become the kind of strategic threat in the global al-Qaida movement that will force the U.S. to confront what are likely to be unpalatable policy choices wherever it turns — especially if its key interlocutor in Yemen, President Saleh, has indeed lost power.