RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – A Nigerian man’s claim that his attempt to blow up a U.S. plane originated with al-Qaida’s network inside Yemen deepened concerns that instability in the Middle Eastern country is providing the terror group with a base to train and recruit militants for operations against the West and the U.S.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to destroy a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day in a botched attempt to detonate explosives. The 23-year-old claimed to have received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, a U.S. law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still ongoing.
If confirmed, it would be the second known case recently by the relatively new group, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, of exporting terrorism out of Yemen – a country with a weak central government, many lawless areas and plentiful supplies of weapons. But Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, has long been an al-Qaida stomping ground.
In August, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula tried to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in a suicide bombing in an attack that bore similarities to the airliner plot. The explosive device Abdulmutallab used was attached to his body, just below his torso. The Saudi attacker is believed to have attached the explosives to his groin or inserted them inside his body.
According to U.S. court documents, a preliminary analysis of the device used by Abdulmutallab showed it contained PETN, a high explosive also known as pentaerythritol. The same material is believed to have been used in the August attack in Saudi Arabia by Abdullah Hassan Tali al-Asiri, who had travelled to Yemen to connect with the al-Qaida franchise there. PETN was also what convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid used when he tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001.
The botched attack on the U.S. plane came a day after Yemeni forces, with the help of U.S. intelligence, launched the second of two major air and ground assaults on major al-Qaida hideouts in Yemen. At least 64 militants were killed in the two operations.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said in a statement, dated from last week and posted online Sunday, that the first airstrike was conducted by American jets. The group urged followers to attack U.S. military bases, embassies and naval forces in the region.
The mass shooting at the Fort Hood, Texas Army post on Nov. 5 added to the concerns about al-Qaida threats from Yemen. U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who allegedly killed 13 people, had exchanged dozens of emails with radical U.S. cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was hiding in Yemen. Last week’s attack on al-Qaida hideouts targeted a meeting of Yemeni and foreign al-Qaida operatives, believed to include al-Awlaki.
A video posted online four days before the bombing attempt featured an al-Qaida operative in Yemen threatening the United States and saying “we are carrying a bomb.” Though it was not immediately clear whether the speaker was anticipating Friday’s bombing attempt, it has attracted scrutiny because of reports that the bombing plot may have originated in Yemen.
Yemen’s weak central government, whose authority does not extend far outside the capital San’a, is battling two rebellions – a secessionist movement in the south and a war with Shiite rebels in the north – as well as al-Qaida militants. Al-Qaida’s presence is particularly worrying because the lawlessness of the country allows it to roam freely.
Some analysts say increased activity by al-Qaida in Yemen suggests the group has strengthened and taken root in a country whose proximity to the world’s top oil producer, Saudi Arabia, and vital maritime routes make it strategically more important than Afghanistan.
Anwar Eshki, the head of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies based in Jiddah, said al-Qaida in Yemen “is stronger than it was a year ago and is turning Yemen into its base for operations against the West.” Eshki’s centre closely follows al-Qaida in Yemen.
“Yemen is al-Qaida’s last resort,” Eshki said. “There’s no doubt that al-Qaida’s presence in Yemen is more dangerous than its presence in Afghanistan.”
Evan Kohlmann, a senior investigator for the New York-based NEFA Foundation, which researches Islamic militants, suggested rivalry among al-Qaida’s branches may be a factor behind the focus on the U.S. He said al-Qaida central in Afghanistan and Pakistan is still the main source of attempts to attack the United States.
“There’s now a competition in the world of al-Qaida between various al-Qaida factions, with each trying to prove themselves and prove their worth,” he said.
“The ultimate achievement for these folks is being able to replicate something that previously only al-Qaida central could achieve,” he added. “If you can be sophisticated enough to hit a target in the continental United States, that’s a tremendous achievement for these folks.”
Yemen has not confirmed Abdulmutallab’s claims that he was aided by al-Qaida operatives in the country and officials told The Associated Press investigations are ongoing. Significantly, the government has not denied his claims.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s government appears to be mounting a serious and aggressive campaign against al-Qaida after years of treading carefully with the militants. The intensified battle coincides with increased Yemeni-U.S. co-operation.
Last week’s attack targeted a meeting of Yemeni and foreign al-Qaida operatives believed to include the top leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, and his deputy Said al-Shihri. There were reports, later denied by family and friends, that al-Awlaki, the radical cleric linked to the Fort Hood shooter, was killed in the bombings.
Shihri was one of 11 former Guantanamo detainees that Saudi Arabia said went through a rehabilitation program but later joined al-Qaida. He emerged as a leader of Yemen’s branch of al-Qaida after being released from the Saudi program last year.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi discussed Yemen’s campaign against al-Qaida with Arab diplomats on Sunday, but it was not clear whether Abdulmutallab’s case came up.
In a statement, al-Qirbi said his country had long planned the operations against al-Qaida elements and the decision to execute them was expedited because al-Qaida has increasingly threatened the country’s stability.
“Al-Qaida elements went far by carrying out attacks against security officers, and threatened the country’s stability and economic interests which made the decision impossible to postpone,” he said.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s powerful northern neighbour, have expressed concern over al-Qaida’s growing presence in Yemen. The Pentagon has spent about $70 million this year on assisting Yemen against the militants as U.S. officials pressed that country to take tougher action.
Yemen, at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, straddles a strategic maritime crossroads at the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the access point to the Suez Canal. Across the Gulf is Somalia, an even more tumultuous nation where the U.S. has said al-Qaida militants have been increasing their activity.
The hard-to-control border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia means private money from the rich kingdom can easily be smuggled to al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. Yemen’s proximity to the Arab world and the Horn of Africa makes it easier for the group to recruit young Muslims, an effort fed by rampant poverty.
Yemen was the scene of one of al-Qaida’s most dramatic pre-9/11 attacks, the 2000 suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole off the Aden coast that killed 17 American sailors.
But the difference now is that rather than just carrying out attacks in Yemen, the new generation of al-Qaida militants appears to be trying to establish a long-term presence here, uniting Yemenis returning from fighting in Iraq and other areas and Saudis fleeing the kingdom’s crackdown on al-Qaida. A year ago, the terror network’s Yemeni and Saudi branches merged into Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, another factor that may have strengthened the group.