The Counterterrorism Blog has some great coverage of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) recent claim of responsibility for the failed terror attack on Christmas Day. Only three days after the attack (Dec 28), AQAP released a message praising the "heroic mujahid...Omar al Farooq." A full translation of the media release is available from the NEFA Foundation. The text and timing of the the release tell us a few important things:
1) The AQAP media wing ("Al Malahim") is able to rapidly produce and disseminate a fairly sophisticated release. This indicates that AQAP likely has in place a robust command-and-control (C2) structure modeled similarly on the structure we saw in place in Mosul in 2008 (see my earlier post here). It also illustrates that AQAP views the recent failed attack as an opportunity to gain additional recognition and attention, a critical element of expanding their campaign.
2) The AQAP release contains a photo (see above) which shows Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab in a photo with an al Qaeda banner in the background. Although we are uncertain exactly when the photo was taken, this proves that Abdulmutallab was definitely associated with AQAP prior to the attack. It might also indicate that AQAP knew he was going to carry out the attack and wanted a photo of him to release after the attack which would prove a linkage between the attacker and AQ. This is significant and goes a long way towards confirming the claims made by Abdulmutallab that the attack was directed by AQ in Yemen. Further, the release spells out the fact that the attacker conducted the operation, "through direct coordination with the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula."
3) The release explains that the main reason for the attack was in response to, "the monstrous raids using cluster bombs and cruise missiles that were launched from the American warships occupying the Gulf of Aden, targeting the proud tribes of Yemen in Abin, Arhab, and lastly in Shabwa, and they killed tens of Muslim women and children, and they also killed entire families." Although an attack this complex was likely already quite far along in the planning process, AQAP was savvy enough to speed up the execution of the attack in order to make it seem like a response to the Dec 17 and Dec 24 US-Yemeni stikes on AQAP. This is similar to the response we saw from al Shabaab (an AQ-affiliated group in Somalia) after the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in September 09. Nabhan was killed on Sep 14 and we saw a massive suicide VBIED attack three days later on Sep 17 that targeted the AMISOM HQ and killed several top African Union leaders. This appears to be a common TTP for AQ and AQ-affiliated groups who want to seize the opportunity to respond to US counter-terrorism efforts in their countries with a swift and symbolic response.
4) The AQAP media release provides some further insight into the organization and capabilities of their group when they explain that, "the mujahideen brothers in the Manufacturing Sector possessed a highly advanced device, with Allah’s grace, and it was tested and proved to be successful and practical, and it passed the inspection machines." Once again, we see parallels between AQAP and other AQ-affiliated groups, which all usually contain a separate "Logistics" structure which often constructs IEDs and other weapons and supplies them to members of the "Military" cells which then carry out the attacks. This allows the network to design advanced weapons and keep the identity of the highly valuable bombmakers secret from military cell members who may be captured and compromise their identity.
5) The release ends (as usual) with a call to arms for, "every Muslim protective of his religion and doctrine to...declare it a full-scale war against every crusader in the [Arabian] Peninsula." However, they then go a step further urging, "every soldier who works in the crusader armies and the apostate governments to repent to Allah and walk the footsteps of the heroic mujahid brother Nidal Hasan." Clearly, AQAP wants to play upon the knowledge that Anwar al Awlaki (who inspired and corresponded with Nidal Hassan) is known to live/operate in Yemen. As AQAP builds their reputation, they desire to affiliate themselves with al Awlaki, who has gained increased prominence since the Ft. Hood shooting spree. **On a related note, see our earlier posts which discuss the possibility that the Dec 24 strike by the Yemeni AF killed al Awlaki. There is still no official confirmation either way if he was EKIA.
Finally, on a separate but clearly related topic, also check out the article released on Oct 29 in AQAP's official magazine Sada al Malahim (English translation available here from the NEFA Foundation). In the article, AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhayshi (who was possibly EKIA in the Dec 24 airstrike) urges would-be attackers to target, "airports in the western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes, or in their residential complexes or their subways." While we have no way to know for certain, this could be an indication that the airplane plot was devised by top AQAP leadership and had been underway for several months. On the other hand, it could be an example of the increasingly common trend where top AQ leaders continue to push the "AQ brand" and advocate attacks, but individuals or small groups actually do the planning and conduct attacks on their own.
I think in this case, the attack was planned with the knowledge and support of top AQAP leaders. In fact, it's quite likely that the Dec 24 meeting which was hit by the Yemeni AF based on US intelligence was being held to give final approval for the attack that Abdulmutallab was going to carry out the next day. This would potentially explain why Nasir al Wuhayshi, Said Ali al Shihri, and possibly Anwar al Awlaki were all located together.