Remote, tribal and intensely poor, Yemen is becoming the new Afghanistan, a sanctuary for the militant Islamic terrorism that this week spread quiet panic on three continents.
Al-Qaida loves a vacuum. What better place to sink roots than a perpetually failing state whose beleaguered government has battled a secessionist movement in the south, Shiite rebels in the north and a border war with Saudi Arabia, a country that is the poorest of the Arab states, 40 percent of whose 24 million people live below the poverty line on less than $2 a day.
While most of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis, Yemen was Osama bin Laden's ancestral home. A place where everyone is armed, Islamic militants were able to operate freely there. Militants in Yemen carried out precursor attacks on American targets long before 9/11, the most spectacular being the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, in which 17 sailors died and 39 were injured.
The organization's growing sophistication dates back to 2009, when two al-Qaida branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP. A rare photograph of the ceremony commemorating the event in January of that year shows its then leaders: Nasser al-Wahaishi, the leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, his deputy, Said al-Shiri, field commander Qasim al-Raimi and commander Mohammed al-Oufi.
A second more recent development, however, is causing even greater concern among intelligence and counterterrorism officials in Washington and allied capitals – the shift in roles of Anwar al-Awlaki, the militant cleric, a U.S. citizen now a senior member of the group.
Once a man who inspired terror – Maj. Nidal Hassan's savage attack on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, in which 13 died and 32 were wounded, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed effort to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit last Christmas day – Awlaki has recently become an operational leader. He is no peasant rube playing backgammon in a remote cave buried deep in a mountain fortress.
Awlaki knows American society intimately – its weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as its strengths. He appreciates American's national security "attention deficit disorder." He knows well that the nation's anger tends to be short-lived, our obsessions fleeting. He understands that our homeland is too easily distracted – by Halloween and Christmas, by sports and TV seasons, by economic pressures.
Under his influence, AQAP has just issued its first English language magazine – Inspire – a 65-page compendium of news terrorists can use, not just odes to martyrs living and dead, but updates on terrorist weapons, techniques, and plots that are intended to help aspiring young jihadis be all they can be. The February issue of AQAP's Arabic language magazine published in February an article on the device that the ill-fated Abdulmutallab hid in his underwear in his foiled effort to join the ranks of the martyred by destroying the jet he was flying in over Michigan.
The explosive in the two devices intercepted in Dubai and the UK – PETN – is apparently a more potent version of the material that Richard Reid hid in his equally farcical shoe, and the same that Abdulmutallab was given. It was also the material that was hidden in the rectum of a suicide bomber last year who successfully outsmarted Saudi security by getting close enough to Saudi counterterrorism chief, Mohammed bin Nayef, a royal, to nearly kill him in an attack. The suicide bomber died in the attack; bin Nayef luckily survived. Had the PETN in the Reid's shoe and Abdulmutallab's underwear ignited, farce would have become tragedy.
This past January following the jet bomb attempt, Yemen declared war on AQAP. Even before, Americans were quietly trying to help Yemen's long-ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh combat the group. The number of American military advisers has increased from an estimated 25 to 50. They secretly helped Yemeni forces carry out a series of raids this past winter against AQAP targets, several of which succeeded in eliminating targets, officials say. The Obama administration is also spending $150 in military aid to improve Yemen's military and counterterrorism forces.
But Washington must tread carefully. Yemen is a tribal society. The killing of innocents triggers blood feuds that can threaten Saleh's hold on the country. Blood grievances endure. The war on terror could well fall victim to the government's collapse should tribal wars resume. "Low profile" seems to be Washington's modus operandi in its dealings with Sana'a. Whether that can persist in light of the most recent terror scare is now an open question.