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Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: A Primer

What you need to know about the organization that gave us the Christmas bomber.

On a February morning in 2006, as Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, was jolted awake by the calls to prayer from the city’s mosques, 23 Yemeni prisoners crawled their way to freedom.

They had spent weeks patiently digging a 140-foot tunnel that would extend from their basement prison cell to a nearby mosque. Among the escapees were Jamal al-Badawi, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors, and Jaber al-Banna, a Yemeni with U.S. citizenship who was counted among the FBI’s 26 most wanted.

There was widespread speculation that the men had help from both inside the prison and out, only fueling fears about Yemen’s revolving doors of justice. It wasn’t the first time al-Badawi had escaped.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government vowed swift action, and while almost all of the prisoners, including al-Badawi and al-Banna, were later recaptured or killed, two of the lesser-known escapees eluded authorities.

Those men, Qasim al-Raimi and Nasser al-Wahishi, a 33-year-old former jihadist who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, disappeared into the largely autonomous tribal region outside Sana’a.

In the four years since, they have helped build what is known today as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the Yemen-based group which was thrust into the spotlight following the botched Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound passenger jet. Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab claims that he received training and the explosives used in the attempted attack from the group during his travels to Yemen.

Though it may seem that AQAP has suddenly emerged as Al Qaeda’s newest and most virulent branch, the organization has increasingly been demanding the attention of intelligence agencies. “The group’s growing ambition and increasing strength really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention,” says Princeton’s Gregory Johnsen, one of the U.S.’s foremost experts on Yemen. “Just because people in the West haven’t been focused on Yemen, doesn’t mean Al Qaeda has not been active there.”

In August, the group narrowly failed to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s security chief, in a plot bearing similarities to the Christmas Day attack. The 23-year-old suicide bomber was on a Saudi most wanted list but managed to persuade officials that he was ready to repent and surrender directly to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. He was even brought to see Nayef aboard the prince’s private plane, apparently concealing the bomb in his rectum.

The bomber was the only one killed when the explosives were detonated (reportedly by a cell phone, but accounts of the attack have varied). He did, however, manage to get close enough to injure Nayef in the blast.

Yemen has had a long and complicated relationship with Al Qaeda, stemming back to the late 1980s when Arab veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan were welcomed back as heroes. In the conservative country, where bin Laden remains a popular figure, Saleh’s government has always understood the importance of cooperating with Islamic leaders, and keeping the Arab-Afghan jihadists close. In 1994, four years after Saleh was proclaimed the president of the newly unified north and south, many of those fighters were dispatched to stop a southern attempt to separate.

President Saleh was, however, among the first foreign leaders to pledge his support to the Bush administration following the 9/11 attacks--a position he made clear during a November 2001 visit to Washington. A year later, an unmanned CIA drone killed the head of Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch. Shortly thereafter, his replacement was arrested. While Saleh paid a high price at home for allowing the U.S. strike, the loss of the group’s leaders, in addition to the war in Iraq that attracted hundreds of Yemeni jihadists, made it appear in 2003 as if Al Qaeda had been largely defeated in the country.

But three years later, al-Wahishi took advantage of the lapsed vigilance by the American and Yemeni forces and built his group. As Saleh’s government tried to quell a northern insurgency and a secession movement in the south (still regarded in Yemen as far greater threats to the country’s stability than Al Qaeda), al-Wahishi’s group waged attacks on local oil and gas facilities.

In June 2007, a suicide bomber targeted Spanish tourists, and six months later two Belgians were killed when gunmen ambushed their vehicles. A series of other strikes followed, culminating in the September 2008 suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a that killed 18, including the six assailants. Meanwhile, Saudi fighters were increasingly bolstering the group’s ranks, since many had fled south across the border following Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed crackdown on extremists.

The Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda made their “merger” official in January, adopting the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A January 23 video broadcast on an Al Qaeda website identified the new Saudi leaders as Said Ali al-Shihri, a 35-year-old former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been released in November 2007, and Abu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi, identified on the video as Guantanamo detainee 333. 

Embarrassingly for both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., due to past praise of the Kingdom’s handling of Al Qaeda, the AQAP leaders had both participated in the well-funded Saudi rehabilitation program. Though al-Awfi surrendered to Saudi authorities a month later, al-Shihri is still an important figure within the group.

AQAP represents what many consider Yemen’s second generation of Al Qaeda--and while the group may have ties to “Al Qaeda central,” the organization appears to act independently. Counterterrorism officials believe AQAP has learned from its recent past and built an organization that can withstand the loss of its leadership. Savvy in delivering its message, the group even has its own magazine, Salah al Malahim (The Echo of Battle), which covers everything from biographies of suicide bombers to advice columns on how to become an Al Qaeda foot soldier.

Reports on AQAP’s membership vary widely, with some Yemeni security experts saying they number no more than 50, while others believe there are more than 200 operatives in the country. Most of their goals still seem to remain local, as reflected in their statement following the Christmas Day attack that warned all non-Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula that they were at risk.

President Saleh faces huge challenges. He continues to struggle with crushing domestic woes, and he's simultaneously trying to attain a diplomatic balance between supporting the U.S.'s demands for action without appearing to be a puppet. His government also has limited influence in the tribal areas outside of Sana'a where AQAP has set up its base. Yemen's foreign affairs minister said he feared that situation wouldn't change until Yemenis stopped turning to their tribal leaders to provide what the government cannot.

"Yemen cannot really build a modern state unless we re-define the role of government," Abu Baker al-Qirbi argued when we talked in his office this summer about the rise of AQAP. "If one spends a fraction of the money that is spent on combating terrorism, on how to rehabilitate and how to address some of the issues that lead to extremism--education and poverty--maybe we would have achieved a greater success in fighting terrorism."

Michelle Shephard is the national security reporter for The Toronto Star and author of Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.  

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