By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 7:54 AM
In mid-October, several days before authorities intercepted two bombs planted on cargo airliners bound for the United States, Saudi Arabian intelligence officials tipped off their French counterparts about another terrorist plot.
An al-Qaeda affiliate had dispatched a cell of North Africans, who crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat, to carry out an attack in France, according to an Arab intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. It was the latest in a rash of far-flung strikes planned by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based group that operated in relative obscurity for years but has more recently demonstrated an ability to launch attacks worldwide.
French officials quietly broke up the plot and have not released details about the intended target or the number of suspects involved. The operation largely has been overlooked since U.S., European and Saudi investigators turned their attention to the cargo plot at the end of October, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula concealed two powerful bombs in printer cartridges.
Yet the involvement of North Africans in the French plot - which has not been previously reported - marked the first known instance in which al-Qaeda's Yemeni arm has partnered with foot soldiers from North Africa.
Counterterrorism officials described it as another sign that the Yemeni chapter - once confined to the Arabian desert - has boosted its ambitions and sophistication by drawing on a pool of international recruits. The new members come from North America, South Asia, North Africa and Europe and are lending their skills in critical areas, from making bombs to designing propaganda.
About 18 months ago, the group sent an emissary to North Africa, where he met with leaders of the local affiliate there, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to Maj. Gen. Abdeljebbar Azzaoui, the director of intelligence and counterterrorism for the kingdom of Morocco.
Little is known about the meeting, but "he came to try to build a relationship," Azzaoui said in an interview. It didn't go well; the Yemeni representative was found decapitated in Algeria. "They didn't like anybody besides al-Qaeda in Afghanistan," Azzaoui said of the North African group.
Other counterterrorism officials, however, said that the Yemeni faction has continued to try to build contacts in North Africa because of its proximity to Europe, an effort that culminated in the plot to attack France in October.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux confirmed Oct. 17 that Saudi intelligence officials had sent an urgent warning that "al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula was certainly active, or expecting to be active, in Europe, especially France." He told French television: "The threat is real."
The precise number of foreign recruits active in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is unknown, but officials said it is clearly increasing.
On Friday, Saudi officials said they had arrested 149 alleged al-Qaeda members in the past eight months. Of those, 25 were foreigners, including individuals from Africa, South Asia and other Arab countries, Saudi officials said.
British authorities say the Yemeni-based al-Qaeda group also has recently targeted their country. On Nov. 3, Home Secretary Theresa May disclosed that police had arrested a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for allegedly plotting an attack in Britain.
May did not identify the suspect or say when he was detained. But she said the Yemen-based network had suddenly vaulted to "the forefront" of terrorist groups active in Britain and had "shown the ability to project a threat far beyond the borders of Yemen."An influx of foreign recruits
Many of the group's members are veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who fought alongside jihadis from other countries. Its leadership includes several Saudis and former prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The network also has benefited from an influx of foreign recruits who traveled to Yemen to study at religious schools. Officials say these recruits - including Pakistanis, Sudanese, Germans and at least one Australian - give the group a more international outlook, as well as connections outside the region.
"There's a sense that they have an opportunity here to expand the franchise," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter.
One visible result has been the group's new English-language propaganda department, which since July has churned out three editions of a flashy online magazine called "Inspire." Counterterrorism officials say the the editor is a U.S. citizen, Samir Khan.
A Saudi native, Khan left his home in Charlotte, N.C., for Yemen in October 2009. The second edition of Inspire, released last month, includes a feature article about Khan, titled, "I am proud to be a traitor to America."
A more well-known propagandist for the group is another U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric originally from New Mexico, was in frequent e-mail contact with Maj. Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who is charged with killing 13 in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Tex., last year.
More recently, British authorities said that Awlaki's online sermons inspired a female student to try to kill a member of Parliament in May as "punishment" for voting in favor of the war in Iraq. Roshonara Choudry, 21, of London, was convicted this month and given a life sentence for stabbing the lawmaker, Stephen Timms.
Since 2001, other regional al-Qaeda affiliates have vowed to go global and target what they refer to as "the far enemy" - the United States and European powers that support governments in Muslim countries.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq blew up luxury hotels in Amman, Jordan, in 2005, but otherwise never made good on threats to strike outside the region. Similarly, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has failed to back up its repeated pledges to terrorize Europeans and Americans at home.
The Yemeni branch first sought to expand its reach in August 2009 with an ingenious plot in neighboring Saudi Arabia. A member of the group finagled a personal audience with Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, the kingdom's deputy interior minister. Carrying a tiny bomb in his rectum, the operative blew himself up in the prince's presence.
Bin Nayef survived, but the incident alarmed the Saudi government and served notice that the Yemeni group had achieved a new level of sophistication.
Four months later, another operative from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with explosives hidden in his underwear. He allegedly tried to detonate the device just before landing but failed. This time, the incident alarmed governments worldwide. The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is a Nigerian citizen who once lived in Britain.
At the same time, the network has continued to mount guerrilla attacks inside Yemen. In August, about 200 al-Qaeda fighters battled with Yemeni government forces near the city of Lawdar. The director-general of the Lawdar district told Arab journalists that the al-Qaeda force included Saudi, Pakistani, Egyptian, Syrian and Somali fighters.
Thomas Hegghammer, a senior researcher for the Norwegian Ministry of Defense who has studied the origins of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said the group's strategic aims have been inconsistent, a possible sign of schisms in the ranks.
"It's very hard to tell whether their focus is on the far enemy or the near enemy," he said in a telephone interview from Oslo. "They're one of the least predictable groups in that regard."
The emir, or leader, of the network is a Yemeni, Nasir al-Wuyhashi, who once fought in Afghanistan and served as a personal secretary to Osama bin Laden. But the upper ranks include a number of Saudis, including the deputy emir, Said Ali al-Shihri, a former Guantanamo prisoner who was released in 2007.
Counterterrorism officials and analysts said that, for most of the network's new members, overthrowing the Saudi royal family was a much more important goal than winning power in Yemen.
"Yemen is of little interest. It's just a platform. Saudi Arabia is fundamentally the prize in that part of the world," the senior U.S. official said.