By Christopher Boucek
Sana'a- Mar 9, 2011- With weeks of protests rattling this strategic country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is a real concern for the United States. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is maintaining a tenuous hold on power and Washington doesn’t want to see him go—his departure risks worsening an environment that dangerous terrorists already call home.
Yemen is facing an unprecedented confluence of crises, the combination of which threatens to overwhelm the beleaguered Yemeni government. The country’s problems include international terrorism, violent extremism, religious and tribal conflict, separatism, and transnational smuggling.
Making matters worse, the country has porous borders, a heavily armed population, and a historical absence of much central government control. These challenges not only endanger Yemen’s stability and regional security, but they also threaten American domestic security.
Because of the government’s inability to control its own territory, the local al-Qaeda affiliate—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—has found in Yemen the space it craves to plot and plan attacks.
Indeed, as I testified last week before the House Homeland Security Committee, AQAP is now the greatest single terrorist threat to the United States.
Just look at the evidence of the last few years. AQAP has repeatedly attempted to strike American targets. This is the organization behind the attempted Christmas Day 2009 attack and last October’s cargo bomb plot. The Christmas Day attack marked the first time al-Qaeda successfully engaged a domestic American target and the plot did not originate in South Asia. It came out of Yemen. Ten months later the organization struck again in what could have been a catastrophic attack. The simple—and alarming—reality is that the majority of the recent alleged terrorist plots in the United States have a connection to Yemen, AQAP, or Anwar Awlaqi.
While the al-Qaeda senior leadership, believed to be somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan, may still have the ambition to launch spectacular attacks against the United States, AQAP has emerged as the organization most likely to kill American nationals and to attack U.S. interests. Whereas core al-Qaeda is under sustained pressure, AQAP is exploiting the undergoverned spaces in Yemen to plan and mount operations.
What makes AQAP such a potent threat to the American homeland is a combination of factors.
AQAP has rapidly evolved into an increasingly lethal and agile organization, with a proven track record of mounting operations within Yemen, regionally, and internationally. It has a very fast learning curve, rapidly learns from its mistakes, and cycles this knowledge back into its operational planning.
More worrisome, when initial operations have been unsuccessful, AQAP has re-attacked the same target, such as the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a (attacked twice in 2009), Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (who has survived four reported assassination attempts by AQAP), and British diplomatic targets in Sana’a (attacked twice in 2010). This should serve as a very dire warning when we consider AQAP’s two attempted attacks so far against U.S. aviation targets.
Beyond a determination to mount persistent low-level attacks against American interests, AQAP is made even more dangerous by its highly sophisticated messaging operation. This is, after all, a terrorist organization that has taken a novel approach to recruiting and radicalizing Muslims in the West.
Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi regularly posts sermons online inciting English-speaking foreigners to engage in violence and militancy. He recently stated that attacks against Americans no longer need further authorization—previously issued fatwas justify all attacks
Through its glossy English-language magazine Inspire, now in its fourth edition, AQAP is able to broadcast its calls for attacks against the U.S. to a far broader audience of would-be radicals.
As recently as last summer, AQAP operated its own channel on YouTube featuring many of the group’s videos subtitled into English. While the channel is no longer available, the material remains online, reposted by other users.
In other words, AQAP has dramatically expanded its potential audience in a way that most other terrorist organizations have not.
No longer does one need Arabic or particular know-how to navigate jihadi web forums. Non-Arabic speakers can now access this material using Google and YouTube.
All this brings us back to the situation on the ground in Yemen, AQAP’s home base. Chronically unstable, it is a near-perfect breeding ground for terrorism.
Over the years, Yemen has expanded far beyond the role it once played as a place to train and prepare for jihad or to rest between campaigns. It is now a place from which potential extremists located overseas are being instructed in the pages of Inspire that they can do greater damage at home, without even needing to travel abroad.
Very clearly Yemen’s problems are not staying in Yemen and AQAP poses a grave and growing threat to American domestic security.
Christopher Boucek is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-editor of the book, Yemen on the Brink.