INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR---PAPER NO. 597
According to the NEFA Foundation of the US, a non-Governmental organization which closely monitors the activities of Al Qaeda, “Al-Qaida's network in Yemen (otherwise known as "Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula") has issued an official communique claiming responsibility for the failed terrorist bomb plot targeting a Delta/Northwest airliner traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day. The communique included original photographs of would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab grinning in front of an Al-Qaida banner. The group acknowledged that the device had failed to properly detonate, but promised that it would "continue on this path until we achieve success." The statement also congratulated Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Malik Nidal Hasan and urged fellow Muslims to follow in his footsteps and kill American soldiers. “
2.According to the same Foundation, “Al-Qaida's network in Yemen has issued an official response to the airstrike earlier this week on a suspected Al-Qaida gathering in the region of Shabwah that reportedly killed up to 30 people, including a number of senior Al-Qaida operatives. The group threatened that it would not allow "the slaughter of Muslim women and children to pass without taking vengeance for them, Allah willing. We call upon all Yemeni tribes... and the people of the Arabian Peninsula to confront the crusaders and their clients in the Arabian Peninsula by attacking military bases, embassies, intelligence agents, and naval fleets occupying the waters of the Arabian Peninsula."
3.There is so far no reason to doubt the authenticity of these claims which show that the attempt to blow up a plane of the North-West Airlines on December 25,2009 as it was approaching to land at Detroit was part of a wider conspiracy of Al Qaeda orchestrated from Yemen and not the isolated act of an individual as sought to be made out by some officials of the Obama Administration. They also show that the massacre of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas by Maj.Malik Nidal Hasan of the US Army on November 6,2009, was an act of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism and not an act of irrational anger of a Muslim serving in the Army.
4.The Obama Administration now faces a two-front “war” against Al Qaeda---- one in the Af-Pak region and the other in the Yemen-Saudi axis. Its success or failure in this “war” will determine the security of Americans in their homeland in the months to come. These developments clearly show that Obama’s overtures to the Arabs through his Cairo address earlier this year and his marking his distance from the Israeli Government and the Jewish people since coming to office on January 20,2009, have had no impact on Al Qaeda, which is as determined as ever to make the Americans bleed. It is to be hoped that these developments will mark the beginning of the end of Obama’s illusions relating to how to counter jihadi terrorism. There is no soft option in dealing with Al Qaeda and its associates whether in the Af-Pak region or in other areas.
5.Al Qaeda’s jihad against the US started in 1992 in Yemen , from where bin Laden’s father had migrated to Saudi Arabia. That year, suspected members of Al Qaeda bombed a hotel in Aden used by U.S. troops going to Somalia, killing two civilians. This was followed by the October 2000, suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Aden that killed 17 U.S. sailors
6.In 2007, remnants of the Saudi branch of Al Qaeda, who had survived an anti-Al Qaeda offensive by the Saudi security forces in the wake of the post-2004 incidents involving Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, fled into Yemen and took sanctuary there just as Osama bin Laden and other remnants of Al Qaeda had fled in 2002 from Afghanistan into North Waziristan of Pakistan and took sanctuary there. This was followed by a car bomb attack on Spanish tourists killing eight of them and the assassination of two Belgians. During 2008, there was a failed mortar attack on the US Embassy in Sana’a. Later, 17 Yemenis, including seven terrorists, died in a twin car- explosion near the US Embassy.
7.Like the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, Yemen, with its mountainous terrain dotted with caves and other natural hide-outs, provides an ideal shelter and launching pad for Al Qaeda. The widespread poverty and the lack of facilities for modern education drive a large number of youth into the arms of Al Qaeda. It has nearly 4000 madrasas, which are the breeding ground of fundamentalist ideological beliefs. Yemen had contributed a large number of volunteers for the jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many of them returned to Yemen after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. Some of them were rehabilitated by being recruited to the Police and the security forces. Others took to a new jihad--- this time against the US and Israel. Those rehabilitated in the security forces and those, who had joined Al Qaeda, remained in contact with each other having fought shoulder to shoulder against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
8.In January, 2009,Al Qaeda announced the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the organization under the leadership of Yemeni Nasir al-Wahishi, with a Saudi Said Ali al-Shihri, as his No.2. al-Shihri used to be detained by the US in its detention centre at the Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The group called itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
9. In March, 2009 a suicide bomber killed four South Korean tourists near the eastern town of Shibam. Another then targeted a convoy of South Korean security officials and the families of the victims while they were on their way to the airport of Sana’a, the capital. On March 28, 2009,four policemen died in clashes with persons believed to be from Al Qaeda in the south of the country.
10. The Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi, who is in charge of Security and Defence, told his parliament on March 23, 2009, that he suspected that Al Qaeda had managed to infiltrate the Yemeni security services. The suspicion that it had penetrated the security services was strengthened by the precision attack of Al Qaeda on the South Korean convoy to the airport. It was apparently aware of the proposed route of the convoy and the time at which it would be moving to the airport.
11. The merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda and the activities of the AQAP rang the alarm bell in the US and Saudi Arabia. Barbara Starr, the CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, reported on February 5,2009, as follows:"There are strong indications of heightened activity in Yemen," one U.S. official told CNN. "There is real concern in the U.S. government that al Qaeda is trying to mount attacks in Yemen." The United States continues to worry about attacks against the US Embassy or other U.S. business interests in Yemen, the official said. But there are also growing concerns that a renewed al Qaeda network in Yemen could plan attacks against Saudi oil infrastructure or the massive cargo shipping operations that run through the immediate region -- potentially disrupting an already shaky world economy. The official said there is a flow of intelligence information in recent weeks backing up that assessment. "There are clear indications al Qaeda is placing emphasis on Yemen as a place to conduct operations and train operatives." The official said the United States has been watching closely and is seeing 'gatherings' of al Qaeda operatives and communication among them. There have also been signs of communication between al Qaeda in Yemen and the al Qaeda leadership believed to be hiding in Pakistan, an official said.”
12.The US authorities feared the emergence of a Yemeni Waziristan, which could become a new launching pad for Al Qaeda operations abroad. US concerns were multiplied by the fact that there were about 100 Yemenis among the terrorist suspects detained in Guantanamo Bay. If President Barack Obama closed down this centre, how to prevent these detenus from joining the AQAP?
13. John Brennan, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser, visited Yemen in March,2009, to discuss this with President Ali Abdallah Saleh. General David Petraeus, commander of the US Central Command, told a Congressional hearing on April 1, 2009, that the inability of the Yemeni Government to exercise control over all of its territory was offering Al Qaeda a “safe haven in which to plan, organize and support terrorist operations.”
14. Saudi concerns over the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Yemen and the activities of the AQAP were strengthened when a suicide terrorist deputed from Yemen with an explosive device reportedly concealed in the rectum area narrowly missed killing the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister in August 2009. The concealment technique worked, but he did not succeed in killing the Deputy Minister presumably because the remote control device was activated prematurely before he was within killing range of the Deputy Minister.
15.The Obama Administration’s plans to neutralize Al Qaeda set-up, with the co-operation of the Yemeni security authorities, took shape only after reports emerged in November,2009, that Major Nidal Malik Hasan of the US Army was in touch with Anwar Al Awlaki, an extremist cleric born in the US, who has been living in Yemen since 2002. Many regard Awlaki as an ideologue of Al Qaeda in Yemen.
16.The US authorities do not as yet regard the massacre of fellow soldiers by Major Hasan as an act of terrorism, but Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and others have cited the connection between Hasan and Al-Awlaki as proof that the Fort Hood shooting was a terrorist attack. Their suspicions were strengthened by Al-Awlaki’s open approval of the act of Major Hasan. Al Jazeera quoted al-Awlaki as saying in an interview: “My support to the operation was because the operation that brother Nidal carried out was a courageous one, and I endeavored to explain my position regarding what happened because many Islamic organizations and preachers in the West condemned the operation.” While approving post-facto Major.Hasan’s action, he refrained from saying anything which might create a suspicion that he had prior knowledge of what the Major intended doing
17. While continuing to treat Major Hasan’s act as not amounting to terrorism, the Obama Administration decided to act against the camps of the AQAP in Yemen. There were two major air raids----supposedly by Yemeni planes, but actually by US aircraft------ which reportedly killed 30 members of Al Qaeda. Reports that some senior leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen, including its No.1 and 2, might have been killed have not been confirmed so far. The second of these raids took place on December 24,2009, a day before the Detroit attempt and the first a week earlier.
18.There is no reason to believe, despite the claims of the AQAP, that the Detroit attempt was triggered off by these raids because according to the Nigerian authorities, the Lagos-Amsterdam-Detroit itinerary of Abdulmutallab had been finalized and the tickets for the to and fro journey bought from the KLM office in Accra on December 16. This was before these air raids.
19.However, after the first of these raids, Al Qaeda was reported to have held a protest rally of its local supporters in Southern Yemen at which speeches were made threatening retaliation against the US . The speakers also reportedly said that their jihad was against the US and not against the Yemeni army.
20. My assessment on the basis of the available details is that the Detroit conspiracy involving the use of the Nigerian was planned by Al Qaeda much before the US decided to go into action against Al Qaeda in Yemen, that Abdulmuttalab was in Yemen between August and December,2009, for being trained and that Al Qaeda’s ability to attempt a repeat of the December 25 plan would depend on the availability of another volunteer with a valid visa for the US.
21.The concerns for the US authorities would be the possibility that Major Hasan and Abdulmuttalab could be the tips of an Al Qaeda iceberg and that unless they identify the rest of the iceberg and neutralize it, they cannot be certain of the security of their homeland. The interrogation of Abdulmuttalab should theoretically enable US officials to get information about other anti-US assets of Al Qaeda and its future plans against the US, but, unfortunately, the capture of senior Al Qaeda operatives from Pakistan in the past such as Abu Zubaidah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and others did not appear to have yielded any worthwhile information about the future targets and plans of Al Qaeda. My own impression is that they came out with a lot of details about the past, but hardly said anything or knew anything about the future. Al Qaeda’s restrictive security is quite strong. As a result, information regarding its future plans known to those captured is not very significant. (29-12-09)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )