Christmas Day Airline Bombing: Yemen and al Qaeda Context
Media reports indicate that the Christmas Day airplane bombing attempt was conducted by a Nigerian self-described al Qaeda member who received training, indoctrination, and possibly equipment from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al Qaeda franchise in Yemen. This attack may have been partly in retaliation for several recent strikes conducted by the U.S. and Yemeni armed forces against AQAP leadership targets in Yemen. It follows a number of statements indicating AQAP’s desire to avenge its losses and decision to focus its efforts against the United States rather than Saudi Arabia, its traditional foe.
Recent Counter-Terrorism Operations in Yemen
The Yemeni government, with the pressure and assistance of the U.S. military, has dealt a significant blow to al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen this past month. AQAP has been targeted in several bombing raids and ground attacks throughout the country this month, including three attacks on December 17 and one on December 24. Several senior AQAP leaders were killed in the recent attacks on the AQAP strongholds. Nassir al Wahayshi, the emir (leader) of AQAP, may have been among the casualties. AQAP has claimed that the attacks caused significant civilian casualties and blamed the United States for executing them. Rhetoric coming from AQAP leaders and terrorist web forums has reflected a desire to shift the group’s focus from targeting Saudi Arabia, to targeting the United States and its interests. The recent attacks targeting AQAP may have a considerable impact on the group’s organization and operational capacity, but the attacks may also have driven the group to accelerate its efforts to strike American targets, which may have included the Christmas Day attempt on the Northwest Airlines flight heading from Amsterdam to Michigan, although media reports indicate that the ticket on which the bomber flew from Nigeria was purchased on December 16.
Yemen and Counter-Terrorism since 9/11
The Yemeni government demonstrated stiff counterterrorism efforts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as a result of pressure from Washington. Yemen’s efforts culminated with providing intelligence and logistical support to the CIA in November 2002 to kill six member of al Qaeda in Yemen, including the group’s leader, Abu Ali al Harithi. Yemen viewed al Qaeda in Yemen as significantly weakened after al Harithi’s death, and the country’s efforts to take on al Qaeda began to decline remarkably in 2003. Yemen’s counterterrorism measures hit a nadir in February 2006, when twenty-three al Qaeda terrorists escaped from a Yemeni prison, including the mastermind of the 2000 USS COLE bombing that killed seventeen Americans. Another al Qaeda operative who escaped in that prison break was Nassir al Wahayshi, the former secretary to Osama bin Laden. Al Wahayshi went on to merge the al Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in January 2009 to form AQAP, which he served as the emir. AQAP has emerged as one of al Qaeda’s better organized and more threatening franchises, especially in light of Yemen becoming a destination for an increasing number of al Qaeda fighters being sent from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The emergence of AQAP resulted in escalated pressure on Yemen from the United States to go after the group. General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, met with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in July 2009 and urged him to go after al Qaeda elements within the country. Yemen responded by arresting “a number” of al Qaeda suspects in the northeastern province of Ma’rib just days following the visit by Petraeus. The Yemeni government then slowed its efforts as it battled two other domestic threats: the al Houthi insurgency in the north and a southern secessionist movement in the south. The attacks against al Qaeda leadership this month represent a significant escalation of Yemeni and U.S. efforts against the group.
DEC 02: al Fallujah forum posts discussion about the desirability of taking the war to American territory—“It is guerrilla warfare in America.” The ideal would be a Mumbai-style attack using small arms. (SITE Intel Group, “Jihadists Discuss Taking War to US, Hitting Soft Targets,” 12/17/09)
DEC 15: al Fallujah forum opens discussion about developing “individual terrorism or jihad” in the West, as outlined by Sheikh Abu Musab al Suri in “Call to Global Islamic Resistance”. (SITE Intel Group, Jihadist Advocates Individual Terrorism Mentality in West, 12/17/09)
DEC 17: US aircraft hit AQAP leadership in Abyan Province, Yemen, killing the AQ provincial emir among others.
DEC 19: US transfers six Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo to Yemen: Jamal Muhammad Alwai Mari, Farouq Ali Ahmed, Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, Muhammad Yasir Ahmed Taher, Fayad Yahya Ahmed al Rami, and Riyad Atiq Ali Abdu al Haf. (ABC News blog Political Punch, 12/20/09: “Obama Administration Transfers 12 Detainees to Yemen, Afghanistan, Somaliland”).
DEC 21: Al Jazeera broadcast a member of AQAP (unidentified) eulogizing those killed in Abyan. The eulogy (available at SITE, “Extended Footage of AQAP Speech to Abyan Tribes,” 12/23/09) focuses on the justifications for rebelling against the Saleh regime and the need to remain united against the foreign oppressors. Addressing the Yemeni military: “Know, O soldiers, we do not want to fight you. There is no issues between us and you. The issue is between us and America and its agents. Beware of standing on the side of America.”
DEC 24: Airstrike kills additional AQAP leadership in Yemen (confirmation of casualties not yet available)
DEC 25: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab ignites an explosive device aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it was preparing to land at Detroit Metro Airport.