The Al Qaeda wing in Yemen that claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing last week 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 Yemen Al Qaeda branches.”
The group said on its website that it was behind the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a flight en route to Detroit from Amsterdam. It said the plot was retaliation for U.S. assistance to Yemen’s military, which in recent weeks has launched airstrikes on training camps and safe houses that killed as many as 60 suspected 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 as the U.S. military pressures 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 rural and tribal regions where the government’s reach is limited.
The group -- whose aim, analysts say, is to create an Islamic caliphate across the Persian Gulf and build a base from which 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.
That 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.
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.
“The majority of Yemenis sympathize with Al Qaeda, especially over American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jemhi said. “Al Qaeda is a growing threat with an ideology that other extremist groups can build upon.”
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 Shehri, a Saudi national who, upon his release from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 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 closely they may have coordinated with Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Bin Laden, who has 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 attempted assassination of a top Saudi official in August.
The incident foreshadowed the jetliner plot and revealed the group’s focus on using concealed explosives to circumvent security.
In an elaborate ruse, a bomber posing as a repentant extremist tried to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s security chief.
Al Qaeda operatives prepared an explosive device that was inserted into the rectum of the Saudi militant, who flew from Yemen to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to meet with the prince.
He got through airport and palace security before the explosive was triggered by a call from Yemen, killing him but only wounding the prince.
The explosive was PETN, the same material that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria is accused of concealing in his clothing in the plot to destroy the Detroit-bound Northwest plane.
The Yemen Al Qaeda group has also been blamed for the assassinations 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.
“Globally, Al Qaeda may be hurt militarily, but this is not the case in Yemen,” Jemhi said. “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.”
Fleishman was recently on assignment in Yemen.
Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in New York contributed to this report.