30 December 2009

Right Before Our Eyes: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's growth into a global threat

Pat Ryan explained, on an earlier post here, the process that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) used to establish themselves into a highly effective terrorist organization. If we use Pat's hard won knowledge on this topic as a prism to view the growth of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), we will witness AQAP grow right before our eyes.

The bombing of the USS Cole, on 12 October 2000, was an attack resourced by Al Qaeda proper. I would not classify the terrorist attack, in the port of Aden, as an Al Qaeda in Yemen attack. At this time, Al Qaeda was not a popular movement until after September 11, 2001.

As the primary leaders and facilitators of Al Qaeda proper established themselves in Afghanistan, a smaller number of Al Qaeda members continued to operate inside Yemen. On 7 November 2002, the United States launched the first successful drone attack, killing the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen (AQIY), Qaed Senyan al-Harithi. Between 2002 and 2008, the majority of AQIY attacks revolved around kidnapping and assassinations of foreigners, here, and here. If you search the NY TIMES online you will find a steady level of pressure applied to the AQIY leadership. My last post on Ali Abdullah Saleh's collusion with Al Qaeda shows that his pressure was superficial at best. During this period, Yemen was a major exporter of foriegn fighters supporting Al Qaeda operations in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Caucuses.

AQIY demonstrated their ability to conduct a spectacular attack against the US Embassy, on 18 September 2008. The double suicide car bombing was reportedly a response to US intelligence directing Yemeni forces against an AQIY safe house. I think this is an important event because it shows a significant growth in AQIY's domestic capabilities. A multiple suicide car bombing (SVBIED) attack is both time and resource intensive. AQIY needed a robust logistical element for the procurement of the explosives and the construction of the VBIEDs. You cannot build and hide two large car bombs without a functioning financial cell. They also needed a solid security element to hide the lengthy process. AQIY needed a sharia emir to bless off on the attack and someone to radicalize the suicide bombers. The only thing AQIY did not have in place at this point was an effective media cell.

On January 26, 2009, Al Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia officially combined into Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Jane Novak wrote a great post for the Long War Journal about their merger. The merger of the two groups identified the completion of AQAP's command and control node. Just before the official announcement of the merger, AQAP established their media wing. On January 13, 2009, Sada Al-Malahim posted their first online media journal. From my research on open source media, I believe the media wing and C2 node were the last two cells needed to provide AQAP the capability of attacking global targets. We know from previous Al Qaeda attacks that their sharia, military, and finance sections were operational long before the merger of AQAP.

January 2009 was the first time Al Qaeda in Yemen had the capacity to plan, resource, and execute global operations. If this is true, I think its reasonable to ask why did it take nearly 12 months before their first strike? It's important for us to continually remind ourselves that Al Qaeda has extremely long planning horizons. Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States six months prior to the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Nairobi. AQAP became increasingly open with their activities in Yemen. Bill Roggio of the LWJ covers this aspect, and explains AQAP's openness was the primary reason for Ali Abdullah Saleh's recent raids. Since the Dec 17 attack involved US cruise missiles, AQAP probably felt the need to quickly retaliate to save face. From an IO perspective, their failed operation was far more successful than the US cruise missiles. If FLT 253 was a retaliatory act, it shows a remarkable capability on AQAP's ability to plan and execute an attack in only one week.

I think we often don't give enough credit to our enemy's capabilities. I believe its obvious that Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab completed his radicalization and suicide training prior to the Joint Dec 17 strikes. I am not 100% familiar with Al Qaeda suicide training, but I don't believe that AQAP could talk Abdulmutallab into Martyrdom in only a few days. One theory I have, Abdulmutallab was supposed to be one of the suicide bombers planning to attack the British Embassy in Yemen, which was the reason for the Dec 17 strikes. Another possibility, AQAP had the Christmas Day attack planned prior to the Dec 17 attacks. The timing alone is brilliant; the President is on vacation, hundreds of thousands of travelers would be stranded with a stand down of air travel, and the blow that the stranded workers/wallstreet would inflict on our economy would be significant.

It is far to early for effective analysis on the paticular Christmas Day attack, but it is blatantly clear that AQAP is now a global threat.



  1. Very interesting article, but some media reports mentionned the fact Abdulmutallab bought his Lagos-Amsterdam-Detroit ticket on Dec 16th, which -if confirmed- indicates it wasn't retaliation for the Dec 17 attacks

  2. DD,

    I see the WSJ reported exactly what you said about the purchase of the Flt 253 ticket on Dec 16th. I think that makes the failed attack even more important than if it was retaliatory in nature. It clearly indicates that AQAP feels ready to "Go Big".