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How Al Qaeda Travels

Recently, The New York Times reported that American officials were finding the first evidence that several Al Qaeda fighters, including a few leaders, were making their way from tribal Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia. So, how does an Al Qaeda operative travel from the border region to those countries?

It may depend on how important the operative is. For a low-level foot soldier headed for Somalia, it may be as easy as traveling to the port city of Karachi and booking a flight on Emirates air to Nairobi, Kenya, where a well-established Al Qaeda presence can shepherd fighters into Somalia. Yemen is an international flight destination, so a relatively unknown member could take an indirect flight from Karachi into Sana'a or another airport, and find ground transportation with another member from there.

For the more senior Al Qaeda official, or one unable to fly, a small boat or freighter can be arranged by a sympathizer for the right price. (Port security, as evidenced by the Mumbai terrorists who set sail from Karachi earlier this year, is lousy.) Yemen and Somalia contain hundreds of miles of unprotected coastline, where fighters could slip in undetected. There are countless watercraft zipping around the Indian Ocean, making it near impossible to catch people sneaking in. You are unlikely to find a customs agent waiting on the shore.

Special thanks to Bruce Riedel of The Brookings Institution and John Pike of
--Marin Cogan