By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 28, 2009; A01
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.
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.