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.
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Al-Qaeda group in Yemen gaining prominence
Yemen, where bin Laden's father was born, has long been an exporter of jihadists. Thousands of Yemenis have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq; many returned to Yemen. In 2000, al-Qaeda militants rammed the USS Cole with an explosives-packed speedboat off the southern city of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors.
The current AQAP generation has its roots in a February 2006 jailbreak of 23 prisoners from a maximum-security prison in Sanaa, the capital. U.S. and Yemeni officials said the prisoners were aided by Yemeni intelligence officials sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
The escapees included Wuhayshi and several high-profile operatives behind the Cole bombings.
Wuhayshi, who is believed to be in his early 30s and to have fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan, soon began to rebuild the branch.
Until a year ago, the branch mostly targeted tourists, missionaries, oil installations and other soft targets in Yemen. In September 2008, heavily armed al-Qaeda gunmen attacked the U.S. Embassy, detonating a car bomb that left 16 dead, including six of the assailants. The embassy attack, analysts and officials said, was believed to have been a direct order from bin Laden.
In January, the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of al-Qaeda merged to create AQAP.
Today, the branch has about 100 core operatives, most in their 20s and 30s. But it has countless sympathizers and immense tribal support in southern and eastern provinces, said Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist with close ties to al-Qaeda. Shaea, who interviewed Wuhayshi in an al-Qaeda hideout earlier this year, said he saw several Muslims with Australian, German and French citizenships.
In a report to parliament last week, Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Security Rashad al-Alimi said militants killed in a Dec. 17 airstrike included Yemenis, Saudis, Pakistanis and Egyptians. U.S. officials have said some militants are leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight in Yemen.
Since the merger, AQAP has improved its abilities to spread its message. It has an online magazine called Sada al-Malahim, or "the echo of epic battles," and regularly beams videos and communiques to Web sites and jihadist forums. On Oct. 29, AQAP published an article in its online magazine saying "that whoever wants to carry out jihad with us," the group would "guide him in the appropriate way to kill."
The group has launched five attacks this year, compared with 22 in 2008, Western diplomats said. But the targets have been higher-profile.
In August, the branch dispatched a Saudi suicide bomber with explosives hidden on or in his body who slipped past airport security checkpoints and nearly killed Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of the kingdom's counterterrorism operations. The bomber, according to some reports, used the same chemical explosives that Abdulmuttalab allegedly did.
Last month, AQAP militants ambushed and killed three senior Yemeni security officers and four bodyguards in Hadramawt province. And last week, Alimi said the branch was planning to launch suicide bombings against the British Embassy and foreign schools.
On Sunday, AQAP issued a communique declaring that it would take revenge for the Dec. 17 airstrikes.