AQAP in Yemen

Q1: Last Friday, two suspicious packages were discovered aboard cargo and passenger flights originating in Yemen and bound for the United States. Reports suggest this may have been a failed bombing attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a terrorist group based in Yemen. What do we know about AQAP and its role in this plot?

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has experienced a resurgence in the last two years. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism operations virtually shut down al Qaeda operations in Yemen. But a February 2006 prison break freed 23 militants and enabled the rise of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who in January 2009 oversaw the unification of disparate Saudi and Yemeni terrorist cells under the banner of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

On Christmas Day of 2009, AQAP attracted international attention for directing a Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab, to attempt to detonate an explosive device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Revelations that the American-born, radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had been involved in training Abdulmutallab only served to heighten U.S. officials’ concerns over AQAP. Al-Awlaki also had exchanged e-mails with the suspect in the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, U.S. Army major Nidal Hasan, and is the leading English-language al Qaeda propagandist.

Last week’s failed bombing attempt further illustrates the threat posed by AQAP. The packages, which were mailed from UPS and FEDEX drop-off points in Yemen, have highlighted security gaps in cargo shipment screening procedures. Though details are still emerging, counterterrorism officials believe that al-Awlaki may have played a role in encouraging the attempted attack. Further reports suggest that a well-known AQAP explosives expert, Abdullah Asiri, may also have been involved in the plot.

Q2: What have U.S. and Yemeni authorities done to counter AQAP?

Yemen has a mixed record in combating terrorism. Up to 2003, joint U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism operations curtailed most al Qaeda activity in the country. Shortly thereafter, however, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh turned his attention to other security threats, including an insurgent movement in the north and a separatist movement in the south. Absent sustained attention, al Qaeda–related militants regained traction. From 2006 to 2008, AQAP was involved in a failed attack on Yemeni oil and gas facilities, was tied to multiple suicide attacks on tourists, and began targeting U.S. interests, including the embassy in Sanaa.

Since the failed Christmas Day plot, U.S. and Yemeni authorities have stepped up efforts to combat al Qaeda. The United States committed around $150 million to build Yemeni counterterrorism capacity, more than doubling the previous year’s total. U.S. and Yemeni cooperation also seems to have improved, though the relationship sometimes falters, as when officials in Sanaa reacted angrily to August reports of plans for increased U.S. counterterrorism operations in the country.

One of the ongoing concerns is that Saleh will divert U.S. assistance intended to combat al Qaeda toward his other struggles in Yemen. In addition, the deep popular dissatisfaction in Yemen is in part a result of the failures of the Yemeni government. Military assistance may divert attention from addressing the underlying causes of Yemeni discontent, and it may further radicalize the countryside.

Q3: In addition to three different violent movements, Yemen faces the prospect of further instability due to a booming population and diminishing water and oil resources. How can the United States, the Yemeni government, and the international community counteract AQAP and address this larger set of challenges?

It has become axiomatic that the United States cannot rely on security assistance alone to combat AQAP. Critics point out that a Western focus on security generally, and AQAP specifically, could alienate a Yemeni public concerned with myriad challenges. This may be true, but aid programs to Yemen remain ill-formed and difficult to implement. Corruption is a persistent problem, and security concerns prevent aid workers from traveling to the regions with the most conflict and most in need of assistance.

Security assistance will require concurrent political and economic development in order to degrade and eventually eliminate AQAP. Yet the United States cannot work through Saleh alone to combat al Qaeda; his top priority will always be on regime survival, and his focus will remain divided between AQAP and the insurgent and secessionist movements. Skeptics point out, in fact, that the al Qaeda threat is becoming one of Yemen’s most promising sources of foreign exchange, as its oil wells run dry.

The United States must also look for ways to engage local Yemenis directly affected by AQAP in an attempt to isolate the movement. On the development front, it will be important to rely in part on groups such as “Friends of Yemen,” a collection of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Western nations. While the GCC countries often have limited capacity to execute on the ground, many have deep ties to people and institutions in Yemen and established aid relationships. Saudi Arabia, for example, channels up to $2 billion per year to Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates pledged just under $1 billion last year. Leveraging this assistance by coordinating it with broader development objectives will be vital to success.

Jon Alterman is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

Critical Questions
is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program