The Al Qaeda wing in Yemen that claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight has as many as 2,000 militants and sympathizers exploiting the country’s economic and political chaos to create a base for jihad at the edge of the Persian Gulf, according to a Yemeni terrorism expert.
The group, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is the latest reincarnation of Islamist militant cells that have been active in Yemen for years. The country has supplied extremists to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to terrorist networks stretching from North Africa to Europe. But Yemen these days is not only inspiring radicals, it’s also attracting them to join an evolving extremist front in the Middle East.
“They were once just a group of radicals in Yemen looking to its mother in Afghanistan for advice,” Saeed Ali O. Jemhi, an expert on militant groups, said in a recent interview in the Yemeni capital, Sana. “But the group’s leadership in Yemen has improved. They have clear ideological and strategic plans, and they were strengthened early in 2009 by a merger of Saudi and Yemeni Al Qaeda branches.”
The network has posted on its website that it was behind the Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a flight en route to Detroit from Amsterdam. The organization said the plot was retaliation for U.S. assistance to Yemen’s military, which in recent weeks had launched airstrikes on training camps and safe houses that killed as many as 60 Al Qaeda members.
The growth of Al Qaeda’s wing in Yemen and its selection of high-profile targets are partly the result of militants regrouping in the Arab world’s poorest country following U.S. military pressure on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yemen’s unrest, including a secessionist movement in the south and a civil war in the north, has given Al Qaeda an ideal hub, especially in rugged rural and tribal regions where the government’s reach is diminished.
The group, whose aim, analysts say, is to create an Islamic caliphate across the Persian Gulf and build a base to attack Western and Israeli interests, is operating just across the Red Sea from Somalia, where another Al Qaeda branch has taken hold in the lawless Horn of Africa. The scenario offers a number of concerns for Washington, and responses could include the possibility that U.S. counter-terrorism agencies will deepen their roles in training Yemeni special forces, or that U.S. intelligence and military hardware will be used to attack militant targets inside Yemen.
One dilemma facing the Obama administration is what to do with nearly 100 Yemenis being held at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. has repatriated some of the alleged militants, but there is fear now that returning the captives, who have not been found guilty of crimes, could further energize the Al Qaeda wing. Some analysts say the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh reacted too slowly to the emerging strength of Al Qaeda and is now unprepared to crush the organization without significant U.S. involvement.
Yemen’s government “didn’t take Al Qaeda seriously in the past,” said Jemhi. “But now the group is considered the top enemy of the state. The majority of Yemenis sympathize with Al Qaeda, especially over American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is a growing threat with an ideology that other extremist groups can build upon. Right now, Al Qaeda is in a renewing stage. When we think it’s dead in one place, it appears somewhere else. This is what’s happening in Yemen.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula became a more dangerous threat in 2006, when more than 20 militant operatives escaped from a Yemeni prison. Since then, the organization has joined extremists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Naser Abdel Karim Wahishi, a Yemeni with ties to Osama bin Laden. Wahishi’s second in command is Saeed Ali Shahri, a Saudi national who, upon his release from Guantanamo in 2007, went through a rehabilitation program in the kingdom.
The Yemeni government says the two men may have been killed in a recent airstrike, but there has been no independent confirmation. It is not known how close the two men are coordinating with Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Bin Laden, who has family roots in Yemen, is believed to be hiding.
The Yemeni-Saudi extremist alliance -- believed to have a nucleus of about 200 committed operatives and hundreds of sympathizers -- crystallized with the August assassination attempt against a top Saudi official. A Saudi militant based in Yemen crossed into the kingdom to kill Muhammad bin Nayef, a member of the royal family and the kingdom’s counter-terrorism chief. The militant blew himself up at a palace reception, slightly wounding Nayef and alarming Saudi intelligence agencies about the possibility of attacks on the nation’s oil installations.
The group also has been blamed for the assassinations earlier this year of three provincial officials in Yemen. In 2008, militants attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sana, leaving 19 dead, including a U.S. citizen. In 2007, eight Spanish tourists and their guides were killed in a bombing near an architectural site.
Yemen’s Al Qaeda wing startled Washington in 2000 when a motorboat packed with explosives slammed into the U.S. destroyer Cole in the port of Aden, killing 17 sailors.
Jemhi said these and other assaults on Western targets indicate that Al Qaeda has operatives or sympathizers in Yemen’s security forces and intelligence agencies. It is also a sign that Yemen has become a rallying point for militants across Europe and the Middle East, much like what unfolded in northern Iraq in 2002, when U.S. bombing of Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan forced militants to seek new bases.
“They have agents within the government,” Jemhi said of Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch. “Globally, Al Qaeda may be hurt militarily, but this is not the case in Yemen. There are plenty of weapons and arms here. Yemen is the perfect state for Al Qaeda to grow. The jihadists can benefit from all the country’s chaos.”
Staff writer Fleishman was recently on a reporting trip to Yemen.