Correction to This Article
Previous versions of this article stated that the U.S. embassy in Yemen was attacked in November 2008. However, the incident took place in September. This version has been corrected.

Al-Qaeda group in Yemen gaining prominence

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 28, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- The al-Qaeda branch linked to the attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight has for the past year escalated efforts to exploit Yemen's instability and carve out a leadership role among terrorist groups, say Yemeni and Western officials, terrorism analysts, and tribal leaders.

U.S. authorities say Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the Nigerian suspect who tried to ignite explosive chemicals with a syringe sewn into his underwear, may have been equipped and trained by an al-Qaeda bombmaker in Yemen. He allegedly made that claim to FBI agents after his arrest.

If the claim is true, it represents a significant increase in the activities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the emergence of a major new threat to the United States, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

"Al-Qaeda started in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, but it was raised and nurtured in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other places. Now it is clear that it is coming back to its roots and growing in Yemen," said Saeed Obaid, a Yemeni terrorism expert. "Yemen has become the place to best understand al-Qaeda and its ambitions today."

The branch, known as AQAP, is still a work in progress, officials and analysts said. It is led by a new generation of Yemeni and Saudi militants keen on transforming Yemen into a launching pad for jihad against the United States, its Arab allies and Israel.

They have used Yemen's vast stretches of ungoverned, rugged terrain; loose-knit tribal structures and codes; widespread sympathy for al-Qaeda; and animosity toward U.S. policies to lure new recruits and set up training bases.

The group has yet to notch a catastrophic attack against the United States or its allies, suggesting that the organization is still too weak to operate effectively outside Yemen. Yet despite operative failures and setbacks, it has shown a resilience and ability to quickly regroup and cause havoc inside the country.

The branch appears to be trying to fill a void left by al-Qaeda's central body, led by Osama bin Laden, which has been weakened by military assaults in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although the branch mostly operates independently, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who comes from a wealthy family and once served as bin Laden's personal secretary, is believed to have strong contacts with the al-Qaeda head, analysts say.

The Yemeni government, under heavy U.S. pressure and with significant U.S. assistance, has intensified its efforts to crack down on the al-Qaeda branch. In the past 10 days, it has launched aerial and ground raids that Yemeni officials say have killed more than 50 militants.

Yemen's weak central government is struggling with a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a crumbling economy. U.S. officials are concerned that Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, could become as volatile as Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The attempt to down the airliner came less than 24 hours after Yemeni forces, backed by the United States, carried out an airstrike on a meeting of suspected al-Qaeda leaders in Shabwa, a southern province.

U.S. and Yemeni officials say Wuhayshi and his deputy, Said al-Shihri, a Saudi national and former detainee at the U.S facility at Guantanamo Bay, were at the meeting, along with Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical Yemeni American cleric linked to the gunman charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., Nov. 5. The fate of the three men is still unknown. Eyewitnesses and tribal leaders in the area expressed doubts that the men had died or were even at the meeting.

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