THE RECOVERY of a sophisticated bomb that U.S. officials believe was intended to be used in a suicide attack against the United States has underlined the reality that the war against al-Qaeda is not yet over — and that it will not necessarily end, as President Obama suggested last week, in Afghanistan.
Though many of the details of the latest plot have not been disclosed, officials say the bomb plot originated with al-Qaeda’s robust organization in Yemen, called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The group has tried repeatedly to attack U.S. targets in recent years: It launched the Christmas Day 2009 attack on an airliner by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and tried to send packages with explosives on cargo planes in 2010. The new bomb is described as a more sophisticated version of the underwear bomb.
The CIA’s disruption of the plot delivered another blow to a group that on Sunday also saw its external operations chief, Fahd al-Quso, killed in a drone attack in southern Yemen. AQAP, however, is far from crippled. The bomb maker who prepared the munitions for the various attacks, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, is still at large, as are other senior leaders. An affiliated militia called Ansar al-Sharia has taken over large pieces of southern Yemen during the past year, while the country has been rocked by revolution and a multi-sided power struggle. On Monday the group assaulted a Yemeni military base, killing at least 20 soldiers.
The United States has carried out about 30 drone strikes and airstrikes in Yemen, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks drone operations. But the militants still have the potential to use the territory they control to prepare and launch attacks against the U.S. homeland, which is why the Obama administration now describes AQAP as the most active and threatening branch of al-Qaeda.
It also explains why the White House recently authorized an expansion of drone attacks in Yemen. In addition to targeting designated leaders connected to plots against the United States, the new authority allows strikes against militants who are believed to be preparing attacks but whose identities might not be fully known.
The drone attacks are controversial, so it was fitting and commendable that White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan delivered a speech last week publicly acknowledging and defending the program for the first time. His explanation was well founded: Drone attacks, he pointed out, are justified by Congress’s authorization of the use of force against al-Qaeda after Sept. 11, 2001, as well as by the principle of self-defense.
Critics describe drone strikes as “extra-judicial executions,” a term that implies those targeted are criminals who should be subject to the U.S. legal system. They also say that AQAP is not directly connected to the group that staged the 9/11 attacks. But senior leaders of AQAP worked closely with Osama bin Laden before 2001, and there are regular communications between the Yemen branch and the al-Qaeda base in Pakistan.
Most important, the latest bomb plot should make clear that AQAP is an armed group attempting to wage war against the United States. Drone strikes alone will not eliminate the threat: The United States must also aim at the political and economic stabilization of Yemen. But President Obama is not only justified in responding with military force, he is obligated to do so in order to defend the country.