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YEMEN: Go Big, or Don’t Bother Going at All

January 7, 2010

By David Draper and Michael S. Smith II

“I think it’s stronger than it was before 9/11.”

—Former CIA bin Laden Issue Station Chief Michael Scheuer
Responding to the question of whether al Qaida is stronger today than it was before 9/11 during a January 3, 2010 interview with CNN.

It is today obvious that Yemen is precariously entangled in al Qaida’s web. Many observers believe this to be a function of U.S. and allied forces in Persia reducing al Qaida’s operability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also thought to be a function of America’s seemingly successful efforts to relegate the terrorist organization’s influence in Iraq. For this camp the whack-a-mole scenario pointed to by various prominent military strategists managing our efforts to counter al Qaida’s global asymmetric warfare methodologies comes to mind — “hit ’em here and they’ll just pop up over there.” Yet close examinations of Muslim terrorist attacks suggest Yemen has always played a pivotal role in the history of violent jihad being written by al Qaida. Ultimately, a look at this history brings into focus the immediate need for actions to address the issue of al Qaida’s ascendancy in Yemen, an issue which has snowballed into a stage of critical mass since January of 2009.

On December 29, 1992, a bomb exploded at a hotel in Aden, Yemen. The blast killed two Australian tourists. The bomb was produced by what was then a little-studied offshoot of a prominent organization created in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984, the so-called Office of Services. The Office of Services sought to raise an Islamic army that would eventually help militate the decampment of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. The offshoot, created in 1988 to wage not just a Persian, but a global jihad, was the conception of a prominent Saudi named Osama bin Laden, a Saudi whose paternal ancestors were from Yemen. This organization’s mark has since become one of the most infamous brands of radical Islam in the world.

It is later learned al Qaida planned to use the bomb that exploded in Aden in December of 1992 to attack American military personnel passing through Yemen en route to Somalia. This failed attack is believed to be al Qaida’s first planned attack on Americans. Two months later, on February 26, 1993 a truck bomb exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York.

Since 1992, al Qaida members from or hiding in Yemen have been linked to many of al Qaida’s most high-profile attacks. Additional attacks and failed plots which highlight the deadly history of al Qaida in Yemen include:

-The coordinated attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on August 7, 1998, which simultaneously killed hundreds;

-The October 12, 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole while the ship was calling on the port of Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. servicemen. (It is later discovered this attack was preceded by a failed attack on the USS The Sullivans while it was visiting Yemen during January of 2000.);

-The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, for which two Yemeni members of al Qaida served as key co-conspirators. Yemeni terrorist Ramzi bin al Shibh, a former roommate of Mohamed Atta (ie the terrorist who piloted the hijacked plane used in the first strike on the World Trade Center) received jihadi training at an al Qaida camp in Afghanistan in 1999; he then became a chief planner for the 9/11 attacks on America. Khalid Almidhar, also from Yemen, piloted the hijacked plane used for the second strike on the World Trade Center on 9/11;

-Investigators determine the 2006-2007 foiled plan hatched by an American-based terrorist cell to attack Fort Dix was in part inspired by the teachings of Anwar al Awlaki, an American born Muslim who became a leading cleric of al Qaida’s brand of militant Islam;

-In March and September of 2008, the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen became the target of suicide bombers who are believed to have carried out their attacks on behalf of al Qaida in Yemen;

-In August of 2009, suicide bomber Abdullah Aseri, previously the most wanted member of al Qaida in Saudi Arabia, attempted to kill Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif. It is believed al Qaida’s innovative explosives experts in Yemen advised Aseri how to smuggle the explosives used in this attack through airports in Yemen and Saudi Arabia;

-On October 29, 2009, al Qaida in Yemen issued a directive which explicitly called on Muslims to use “small explosives” made of readily-available materials that are hard for airport security systems to detect to attack airplanes and airports;

-On November 5, 2009, U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 Americans and injured 30 others during a shooting spree at Fort Hood. The NEFA Foundation helped investigators determine the attack was likely inspired by the teachings of the previously mentioned American born al Qaida cleric who was hiding in Yemen, Anwar al Awlaki.

-On Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian born terrorist who received training and inspiration from members of al Qaida in Yemen attempted to ignite a bomb made of PETN and TATP in an attempt to blow up a Delta-owned airplane landing in Detroit. (PETN is the same explosive compound smuggled aboard a trans-Atlantic flight by al Qaida member Richard Reid in December of 2001.)

It is believed al Qaida in Yemen provided the design for the bomb the Nigerian terrorist tried to use in the failed Christmas Day attack on America. Days after this attack failed to materialize al Qaida in Yemen claimed the failed attack was planned to avenge the deaths of its members during recent strikes on al Qaida in Yemen that were carried out with assistance from the U.S.

Along with the above incidents it is should be noted Carlos Bledsoe, the American-born Muslim convert who attacked an Army/Navy recruitment office in Little Rock Arkansas on June 1, 2009, traveled to Yemen in 2007. In addition to marrying a school teacher from Sanaa, and obtaining a counterfeit Somali passport Bledsoe is believed to have used for travels that would have raised red flags had his real passport cataloged those trips, Bledsoe is believed to have studied at the infamous Damaj Institute.

The Yemen-based Damaj Institute is known by terrorism investigators to have become a common place of study for a list of American-born radical Muslims whose names are well known to law enforcement agents in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Damaj Institute has often been used to indoctrinate and recruit foreign extremists and terrorists seeking membership in paramilitary or jihadi organizations. Among the more well-known names is John Walker Lindh, the caucasian, American-born al Qaida member apprehended in Afghanistan soon after 9/11.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Yemen was second only to Saudi Arabia as a source of soldiers for the international Islamist brigade that fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and gave birth to al Qaida. Thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of Yemenis fought in Afghanistan or trained in al Qaida’s camps there during the struggle to boot the Soviets from Kabul. While Yemeni officials say that not every Yemeni veteran of the war in Afghanistan is an al Qaida member, today Yemeni prisoners make up one of the largest national contingents of detainees at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Since 9/11 the federal government has acknowledged 108 of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of aiding al Qaida are citizens of Yemen. Today, more than 90 of the 210 detainees held at Gitmo are from Yemen.

In January of 2009, former Gitmo prisoner No. 372, Shaykh Abu Sufyan al Azdi Said al Shihri, who became the secretary-general of al Qaida in Saudi Arabia soon after he was repatriated to Saudi Arabia, announced al Qaida in Saudi Arabia had merged with al Qaida in Yemen. Considering the continued survival of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in the lawless pockets of Afghanistan and Pakistan, environs quite similar to those found in northwest Yemen, the decision by al Qaida to base itself in the hinterlands of Yemen instead of Saudi Arabia’s bustling capital was only sensible. Still, larger geopolitical and logistics factors must also be taken into consideration when examining al Qaida’s calculus for establishing a headquarters in Yemen — after all, its founder was a student of economics.

When put next to that of Pakistan’s 176 million citizens, the 24 million people living in Yemen are likely to pose far fewer potential issues for an organization which has historically sought to co-opt community leaders of countries inhabited by its members. Further, unlike countries such as Yemen’s oil-rich neighbor Saudi Arabia, Yemen possesses very little in the way of natural resources. This makes it difficult for the government of Yemen to pay for any significant security resources, not to mention the social programs which traditionally serve as the basis for domestic stability in most Middle Eastern states.

Unlike landlocked Afghanistan, Yemen enjoys an expansive coastline, and the country is situated in very close proximity by sea of lawless African countries like Sudan and Somalia. This makes Yemen an ideal sanctuary for a band which is frequently on the run. Then there are Yemen’s porous borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman, which make it easy for militants to enter the country undetected by Yemeni authorities.

Finally, not unlike Afghanistan or northwestern Pakistan, Yemen’s topography alone — the perfect mix of extraordinarily hot deserts adjacent sheer mountainous regions — presents tremendous logistical issues for any military that may wish to place boots on the ground there.

During the past year, the issue of al Qaida’s growth in Yemen has become all too similar to the situation in Afghanistan before 9/11. However, unlike the case with the Taliban, which had assumed power over much of Afghanistan before 9/11, the Yemeni government is not helmed by radical Muslims who are enthusiastic about al Qaida’s expanding presence in their backyard.

It is now ever-apparent members of al Qaida hiding in Yemen are among the most lethal terrorists on the planet. They have proven capable of recruiting foot soldiers from far off countries like Nigeria to carry out al Qaida’s attacks in countries as far away as the U.S. They have become far too successful with their efforts to cultivate affinities for al Qaida’s militant brand of Islam.

Heretofore, directives like the one issued in October of 2009 reveal the desires of high-ranking al Qaida members hiding in Yemen to become the stewards of al Qaida’s efforts to incite violence across the globe.

While Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri rarely surface from hiding, al Qaida members living in Yemen remain in constant contact with Muslims the world over. Their determination is amplified by the fact that a chief propagandist for al Qaida in Yemen, Anwar al Awlaki, has essentially been hiding in plain sight on the Internet. Until recently, Anwar al Awlaki was actually running a Facebook page.

This brazen organizational façade further positions the Yemen wing of al Qaida as an all the more attractive outfit for prospective recruits who desire to achieve martyrdom via acts of terrorism. As one retired senior-ranking member of the U.S. Marine Corps recently put it, “These [guys] are laughing at us.”

Policy-makers from Western nations cannot afford to ignore this situation. The Yemen branch is inspiring radicalized Muslims from around the world to carry out al Qaida-styled attacks.

Immediately following the failed Christmas Day attack in Detroit, an attempted attack carried out by a terrorist trained by al Qaida in Yemen, Yemeni authorities highlighted the issues al Qaida has created for their country and the world. Accordingly, several hundred members of al Qaida are known to be hiding in Yemen, and Yemeni authorities say they are plotting attacks similar to the one of Christmas Day 2009.

Then, on December 30, 2009, Yemen’s deputy interior minister, Brigadier General Saleh al-Zawari, stated: “The [Interior] Ministry will continue tracking down Al Qaida terrorists and will continue its strikes against the group until it is totally eliminated.” This is a cry for help from the West.

The time to take the fight to al Qaida in Yemen is now. While the government of Yemen may finally be ready to wage a war on al Qaida, it cannot succeed without America’s support, and that support must grow exponentially in the months ahead. The administration should immediately expedite the deployments of resources — both overt and covert — needed to destroy al Qaida’s foothold in Yemen. It should do so before al Qaida’s members who are hiding there either cultivate support among enough Yemeni citizens to begin subverting the Yemeni government, or simply set sail for other nearby safe havens in Africa like Somalia or Sudan.

America spent billions trying to gain Musharraf’s cooperation with our efforts to capture and kill members of al Qaida hiding in Pakistan after 9/11. This investment yielded very little in the way of immediate returns for the U.S. Conversely, after America infused a mere $67 Million worth of anti-terrorism support into Yemen last year, high-ranking players from al Qaida were killed in a matter of months, including the first and second in command of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

When it comes to our efforts to neutralize international terrorists who have taken refuge in Yemen, it now appears America may have a reasonable and willing partner in the government of Yemen. Washington should do everything in its powers to nurture this relationship to the fullest extents possible — before the fires being fanned by al Qaida in Yemen burn out of our control.

David Draper is Director of Strategic Operations at The NEFA Foundation.
Michael S. Smith II is an Associate Researcher at The NEFA Foundation.

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