The Yemen based al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) is a relatively "young" organization: It was established in January 2009 by merging the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda groups in Yemen. These groups, which sustained harsh blows since 2000, joined forces and the new organization is now the second most dangerous in the world, behind al-Qaeda's main ideological and operational center in Pakistan under Osama Bin Laden's leadership (Notably, both Bin Laden and one of his wives are of Yemeni decent.)
Both the Pakistani and Yemeni center deploy suicide bombers and explosive devices, while making use of radical Muslims who possess Western citizenships in order to penetrate through the West's defenses. However, the hallmarks of the attacks initiated by both centers are different. In fact, the Pakistani and Yemeni center each have their own expertise.
The Pakistani al-Qaeda specializes in initiating major demonstrative attacks in foreign countries via relatively large cells that operate in several sites simultaneously. These terrorists combine shooting attacks, bombs, and hostage-taking in order to create a massive media effect, as was the case in the Mumbai attacks in India. Meanwhile, the Yemeni al-Qaeda branch has been specializing in one-time attacks against "high quality targets" that create the desirable effect for Global Jihad.
In carrying out these attacks, the Yemen-based terrorists utilize sophisticated means and creative methods in order to penetrate the target. An example of this was the 2008 assassination attempt against Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Bin-Naif, who is responsible for counter-terror operations in Saudi Arabia. The terrorist who was dispatched from Yemen asked for a meeting in order to present "important information" to the deputy minister. According to reports, the terrorist's masterminds hid an explosive device in his intestine and he managed to go through security screening in two airports. He later activated the device at the deputy minister's office in Riyadh – the terrorist was killed, but Bin-Naif was only lightly hurt.
This was in fact the second case where a terrorist left Yemen carrying a hidden explosive device and managed to fly to his destination without the bomb being detected. The first case was in 2001 when Richard Reid, a Muslim of British decent, managed to hide explosives in his shoes and attempted to activate them during a flight to the United States. The explosive caught fire but did not explode, and the terrorist was nabbed. A similar case took place last year, on Christmas Eve, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian Muslims terrorist who was educated in Britain, attempted to set off an explosive device hidden in his underwear during a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. In this case too, the bomb failed to explode, but the terrorist suffered severe burns in the fire that ensued.
Terrorists use super-explosiveThe explosive material in both cases was PETN, the very same substance used by Yemeni al-Qaeda men to build the devices sent to US synagogues. This explosive is so powerful that a small quantity of it is sufficient to cause death and major damage. One can "spread" a thin layer of powder on a cloth or on the sides of an electric appliance, and this is at least one of the reasons why it cannot be detected even by the most sensitive monitoring equipment available at airports. Moreover, because of its great sensitivity to heat, the explosive can be activated by a very small detonator, which does not arouse suspicions when x-rayed. Such bomb can even be set off by a match. The only drawback of such explosive devices is that they require great expertise in order to be detonated when on the terrorist's body.
The masterminds behind the recent bombs sent from Yemen sought to overcome this drawback in their attempt to target the synagogues. They hid the explosives in electronic devices, and also included a simple cellular device used in cell phones. By doing this, they could have activated the bombs at the timing of their choice via the cellular network, either through a collaborator in the US or directly from Yemen.
Airport screening fails to detect bombs (Photo: Reuters)
Both UPS and FedEx have their own sealed off zones at the world's largest airports where cargo is being screened using advanced means. The explosive devices sent from Yemen were not discovered through this screening, but rather, as result of intelligence information received from Saudi Arabia. This information prompted a special examination of all packages that arrived from Yemen, enabling officials to uncover one bomb in Britain and another one in Dubai. Yet what should raise our concern here is that had it not been for the Saudi information, the explosive devices would have reached their destination and would have possibly exploded in the hands of synagogue functionaries.
The leaders of AQAP would have achieved the desired terroristic effect even if the casualties and scope of damage were relatively limited. Hence, the first and most urgent need is to close the breach discovered in the security screening procedures. Notably, many airports in the world, including in Israel, use special means aimed at activating the bombs that were not detected during screening. Such controlled explosions are undertaken in special sterile zone. This tactic did not work either in the latest case, and officials must examine why.
However, experience shows that monitoring and screening means are the last resort and are not at all hermetic. A much more efficient means is intelligence follow-up, which in the last case was proven effective. However, such intelligence operations, especially when undertaken at various sites worldwide, are limited and face many breaches. Hence, we also need ongoing, effective operations to be directed at terror masterminds and perpetrators.
War goes into high gearHotbeds of terror that dispatch terrorists for attacks against the West are currently being maintained in Pakistan-Afghanistan, in northern Africa and the sub-Sahara region, in Somalia, and in Yemen. The Jihadists enjoy freedom in so-called "failed states," where the regime is weak or cooperates with the terrorists. However, not all these states are equally dangerous. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the US and NATO are engaged in an active, intensive and sophisticated counter-terror effort against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In Somalia, Jihadists are busy fighting each other and lack sophistication and technological capabilities. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is dangerous because of its members' murderous motivation, yet it too lacks technological capabilities and sophistication.
Hence, al-Qaeda in Yemen is currently the "rising star" on the global terror front. The organization exploits the tribal and political divide in the country and the fact that the regime is forced to engage in two domestic wars simultaneously; terrorists also take advantage of the ease to enter Yemen and the rather developed industrial and scientific infrastructure it offers.
Since 2006, al-Qaeda has been able to settle and integrate within the tribes in eastern and southern Yemen, through marriages between activists and tribal women and via prolific welfare activities set up by the organization. Meanwhile, Yemen's president needs members of these tribes (which were home to the Bin Laden clan as well) and enlists them in his war against the Shiite rebels, as well as against secular rebels in southern Yemen. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is scared to anger these sunny tribes, and he therefore avoids as much as possible efforts to fight al-Qaeda men.
Yet at the same time, the Yemeni president seeks America's generous economic aid, and he therefore complies with Washington's and Riyadh's demands (unenthusiastically); occasionally, his army embarks on not-too-effective operations against al-Qaeda activists. The Yemeni army launched such operation about a week and a half ago, and the attack planned by Yemeni Jihadists against Chicago synagogues may have been meant as retribution.
Yemeni customs official (Photo: Reuters)
This is the backdrop of President Barack Obama's recent declaration that the US will now be launching an all-out attack against al-Qaeda in Yemen. In fact, the US has been operating against these groups since 2000, when Yemeni terrorists almost sunk the USS Cole at the port of Aden using a booby-trapped boat. However, this war had been managed on the backburner. Only in the past two years did the US boost the war against Jihadists in Yemen. The CIA reinforced its intelligence-gathering efforts in the country and even carried out several successful targeted assassinations of group leaders. The US has recently granted the Yemeni government some $150 million to fund the war against al-Qaeda. Yet as it turns out, these moves are inadequate.
In the wake of the latest terror plot, Washington will apparently have to embark on more direct and active involvement in Yemen, with the massive assistance of the Saudi royal house, which also has a major interest in repressing al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula.
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