Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch spreads its reach for recruits, targets
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
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 dispatched a cell of North Africans, who crossed the Mediterranean by boat, to carry out an attack in France, according to an Arab intelligence official who spoke on the 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 more recently has demonstrated an ability for 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.
"He came to try to build a relationship," Azzaoui said in an interview. It didn't go well; the Yemeni agent was found decapitated in Algeria. "They didn't like anybody besides al-Qaeda in Afghanistan," Azzaoui said of the North African group.
Making contacts in North Africa
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.