The continued al Qaeda threat from Yemen

Chris Harnisch Contributor
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Last week’s terror plot to send two explosive-laden packages from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago was far from an isolated incident.  The plot, in fact, likely represents the fifth attempt by the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to strike Western targets in the past ten months.  An AQAP operative attempted to detonate a commercial airliner in the skies over Michigan last Christmas, and the group has unsuccessfully attacked three British diplomatic targets in Yemen this year, including a failed suicide assassination attempt on the British ambassador.  The Christmas Day attack alerted Americans and policymakers to the threat posed by AQAP, and last August the CIA assessed that the Yemen-based franchise eclipsed al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan — frequently referred to as “al Qaeda Prime” — as the most dangerous al Qaeda branch in the world.  Unfortunately, however, the U.S. has failed to develop an effective strategy to combat the terror threat emanating from Yemen.

The Obama administration pledged to take strong action against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the aftermath of the Christmas Day attack.  The Pentagon more than doubled its military assistance to Yemen this past year, from $67 million to $155 million.  Those funds went to providing helicopters, Hummers, communications systems, and training for a Yemeni military currently engaged in two other domestic conflicts unrelated to al Qaeda.  The increased military assistance is the centerpiece of an administration policy that entrusts the Yemeni government to combat AQAP with support from U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Operations forces.

Unfortunately, the overall situation in Yemen has only deteriorated since the adoption of the “Trust Yemen” policy, and AQAP has only strengthened.  The al Qaeda franchise has waged an insurgency throughout much of southern Yemen since June, targeting primarily Yemeni intelligence, law enforcement, and military interests.  It has stepped up its recruitment efforts to attract aspiring jihadists in the West by releasing two issues of an English-language magazine entitled, “Inspire.”  Most recently, just a few weeks before the attempted package plot, AQAP announced the formation of a new unit within its ranks dedicated to overthrowing Yemen’s president and establishing an Islamic state.  The group’s announcement stated that AQAP views its current position as parallel to that of the Taliban before the Taliban established an Islamic state in Afghanistan.

The Yemeni government has not stood idle while AQAP has continued to strengthen, but it has largely failed to thwart its operations or hinder its capabilities.  The government regularly boasts of arresting al Qaeda operatives, but those operatives rarely appear to be of any operational significance.  Yemeni security forces prepared for what initially seemed to be a promising siege on an al Qaeda stronghold in southern Yemen in late September, but the operation ended with the Yemeni government declaring that an estimated 60 al Qaeda operatives escaped the stronghold during the night, when security forces supposedly had it surrounded.

The Yemeni government’s lackluster efforts to combat AQAP may continue to earn it aid dollars and praise from the international community (last Friday, the Deputy National Security Advisor, John Brennan, called Yemen a “courageous partner”), but they are doing little to keep America safe.  The Yemeni government has yet to make any arrests in direct connection to the Christmas Day attack, and AQAP’s entire leadership apparatus — including its leader, deputy leader, main spiritual leader, and operations leader — remain intact and functional.  Further, the Yemeni government has taken no action against the American-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who plays a prominent operational and recruiting role within AQAP, or against Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen from North Carolina who also plays a key role in the group’s efforts to recruit aspiring Western jihadists.

President Obama has stated that his highest priority is to keep the American people safe.  Thorough and meticulous efforts by law enforcement and intelligence authorities in the U.S., Great Britain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia likely saved the lives of many innocent people last week; a policy of simply trusting the Yemeni government to fight al Qaeda did not.  The Obama administration needs to carefully consider an altered approach to the security challenges posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula if it hopes to prevent future attacks originating in Yemen and achieve its top priority of keeping America safe.

Chris Harnisch is an al Qaeda analyst focusing primarily on Yemen and Somalia. He has briefed members of the House and the Senate on issues relating to Yemen and Somalia, and he has published articles on the Islamist threat in those countries in numerous publications.  Chris served on the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney.  He has lived and studied in Yemen and Egypt.