Christmas Day Attack: Manifestation of AQAP Shift Targeting America
The war between the United States and militant Islamists on the Arabian Peninsula reached a boiling point this December. The Yemeni government, with the pressure and assistance of the U.S. military, dealt a significant blow to al Qaeda’s operations on the Peninsula, which are based out of Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was targeted in bombing raids and ground attacks on December 17 and December 24, reportedly killing several senior AQAP leaders. Statements from AQAP over the past few months have hinted at the group’s desire to shift its primary focus from targeting Yemeni and Saudi interests to targeting the United States and its interests. The desire to hit the U.S. appears to have grown exponentially in the aftermath of the recent Yemeni and U.S. attacks on the group. AQAP nearly realized its goal of killing Americans when it deployed an operative to blow-up a plane carrying 289 people in the skies over Michigan.
The Christmas Day terror attack on Northwest Flight 253 was apparently planned and conducted by an operative of the terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Although this group took its current form only at the start of 2009, its leaders have a long history of involvement with al Qaeda and of terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The attempted destruction of flight 253 over American soil was a dramatic demonstration of the group’s ability to operate globally as well as of its recent decision to focus attacks directly against the United States. The Christmas Day attempt was part of a clear counter-offensive that AQAP is attempting to wage in response to aggressive efforts by the U.S. and Yemen to reduce its capabilities through highly targeted airstrikes and raids assisted by minimal and mostly offshore American assets.
The Yemeni government made serious counterterrorism efforts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 due to pressure from Washington. Yemen’s efforts culminated in the provision of intelligence and logistical support to the CIA in November 2002 to kill six members 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 and 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, for which he served as the emir (leader).
The necessity to merge the two franchises and base the resultant group out of Yemen stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s tough counterterrorism measures against al Qaeda following a string of deadly attacks in the kingdom between May 2003 and December 2004. The Saudi security forces have since effectively denied al Qaeda a haven within its borders. The lax security measures taken by Yemeni government against al Qaeda, which stem partially from the close ties that the security apparatus has forged with Islamists over the past two decades and partially from the government’s perceived necessity to allocate its security resources to combat other domestic threats it views as a more immediate threat to its survival, made Yemen a secure alternative base for al Qaeda’s operations on the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP has since emerged as one of al Qaeda’s better organized and more threatening franchises, especially as Yemen has become a destination for an increasing number of al Qaeda militants 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 turned its attention to two other domestic threats: the al Houthi insurgency in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Neither the al Houthi insurgency nor the southern secessionist movement relates to AQAP ideologically or operationally, but all three groups share the desire to see the Saleh government deposed. On August 11, Saleh launched an all-out war against the al Houthi rebels in the north, which he accuses of attempting to reestablish a Shiite imamate that existed in northern Yemen until 1962. Significantly, the al Houthi insurgency, which the Yemeni government claims benefits from Iranian support, antagonized the Saudi government to deploy large numbers of troops to its southwestern border to fight against the al Houthi insurgents in the first week of November. The al Houthi insurgents blame Saudi Arabia for crossing into Yemen and killing civilians – a claim denied by Saudi Arabia. The alleged Saudi involvement in northern Yemen fueled already-rampant accusations in Yemen – especially amongst AQAP – that the Saleh government is a puppet of the Saudi regime.
U.S. pressure on Yemen to combat AQAP did not slacken, even when the Yemeni government directed its attention and resources to the al Houthi insurgency in the north and the calls for secession in the south. A high-profile congressional delegation of senators – John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins – met with President Saleh in Yemen in August to urge closer U.S.-Yemen cooperation in combating terrorism and denying al Qaeda a safe haven in the country. President Obama then sent John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, to Sana’a in September to hand deliver a letter from Obama to Saleh expressing Washington’s concern about AQAP and pledging Washington’s support in combating the group. Brennan’s meeting with President Saleh was followed one month later by a meeting between Saleh and the U.S. Commander of Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Admiral William McRaven, to discuss joint efforts in fighting AQAP. The U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, held talks with Saleh that same October, reportedly to discuss counterterrorism cooperation.
The pressure applied by U.S. officials on the Yemeni government to tackle AQAP has translated into a noticeable increase in counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries over the past few months. A state-run Yemeni news agency reported in early November that the U.S. and Yemen had signed a military cooperation deal following meetings between military officers from the two countries; the Pentagon later denied that any agreement had been signed, but General David Petraeus has acknowledged that the U.S. is providing security assistance to Yemen within the framework of military cooperation. That security assistance has come in several forms. The U.S. has reportedly deployed Special Forces to Yemen to help train the Yemeni army. The U.S. has also reportedly started to provide military equipment to its Yemeni counterpart as part of a $70 million military aid package to be delivered to the country over the next 18 months. Significant U.S. intelligence support has apparently also been given to the Yemeni government. Yemeni news agencies have reported that unmanned U.S. drones have been seen hovering over known al Qaeda strongholds, including areas in the province of Ma’rib. Al Qaeda operatives in the southern Abyan province echoed that claim, stating that “American unmanned aircraft always fly over” a suspected al Qaeda camp in the mountainous region.
U.S. and Yemeni efforts to weaken AQAP culminated this December with a series of strikes in a span of three weeks against the group’s operatives in Yemen and a key facilitator located in Pakistan. The first significant blow to AQAP may have come on December 10 when a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan killed Saleh al Somali, the senior al Qaeda operative reportedly responsible for transferring Arab fighters from Pakistan to Yemen. Yemeni forces – with intelligence support and possibly tactical support from the United States – then launched a series of attacks on known al Qaeda strongholds throughout Yemen exactly one week after the drone strike killed al Somali. The most effective attack that day – December 17 – used air and ground forces to kill twenty-four al Qaeda militants at a training camp in the southern Abyan province. Among the dead were Saudis, Pakistanis, and Egyptians, as well as Mohammed Saleh al Kazimi, the leader of the Abyan al Qaeda cell. Yemeni forces also raided an al Qaeda cell in the Arhab district northeast of Sana’a, killing three militants and arresting seven, as well as a cell in Sana’a itself, arresting fourteen. The Arhab cell was reportedly in the final stages of preparing suicide attacks on the British embassy and foreign schools, and the Sana’a cell was providing support for the Arhab cell. The third major offensive against AQAP this month came on December 24. Yemeni forces – again with intelligence support from the U.S. and possibly Saudi Arabia – killed between thirty and thirty-four al Qaeda militants by bombing what was believed to be a meeting of top AQAP leaders in the mountainous Shabwa province. Casualties of top leaders are still unconfirmed, but initial reporting indicated that Nassir al Wahayshi, the AQAP emir and former secretary to Osama bin Laden, may have been killed in the attack. Other reported (but not confirmed) casualties in the attack include al Wahayshi’s Saudi deputy and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Saeed al Shirhi, as well as Anwar al Awlaki, a radical theologian linked to Ft. Hood murderer Nidal Malik Hassan. Emerging evidence shows that the Nigerian-born Christmas Day bomber may have also been inspired by al Awlaki; however, no proof currently indicates that the two ever communicated, as Hassan and al Awlaki allegedly did.
AQAP has taken note of the increased cooperation between American and Yemeni security forces and appears to have identified the United States and its interests as its primary target, replacing Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which have historically been the primary targets of al Qaeda groups on the Arabian Peninsula. Al Wahayshi on November 1 called on his followers to attack airports and trains in the West using homemade bombs. A Saudi commander in AQAP released a video on November 9, in which he told the Islamic Ummah (i.e. nation) that “your first enemy is the Crusaders, among them America and NATO.” AQAP released a video of an interrogation and execution of an alleged Yemeni spy in the al Qaeda stronghold of Ma’rib province in late November. The AQAP interrogators forced the alleged spy to confess that the Saleh government “is an agent government for the Americans” and that the Yemeni “security services…oppress the mujahideen at the request of America.” The video demonstrated a clear level of paranoia on the part of the AQAP interrogators that the U.S. is exerting major efforts to weaken the group.
Two notable discussions on the terrorist web forum “al Fallujah” reflect the urgency of the global militant Islamist movement to strike the United States. A robust discussion on December 2 enthusiastically supported the idea of “taking the war to enemy territory…guerilla warfare in America.” A December 15 post on the same site urged militants to embrace an individualist mentality and carryout individual acts of terrorism in the West, similar to the murders executed by Nidal Hassan at Ft. Hood. The “al Fallujah” site is not associated exclusively with AQAP, but these two posts build on the call by the AQAP emir, al Wahayshi, to strike western targets with homemade bombs.
AQAP’s rhetoric directly and indirectly showing a desire to hit the United States and its interests increased following the 12/17 and 12/24 attacks on the group’s strongholds. An AQAP leader addressed a crowd in Abyan province – the site of one of the government attacks – on December 22 and said, “The issue is between us and America and its agents. Beware of standing on the side of America.” The group then released an official statement on December 27 in response to the 12/17 attacks on AQAP. The statement accuses the United States of carrying out the “brutal airstrike on defenseless Muslims…[that killed] nearly fifty women, children and men.” The statement calls President Obama the “leader of the Crusader campaign” and urges the people of the Arabian Peninsula “to face the Crusader campaign and its agents in the Arabian Peninsula by striking their military bases, their intelligence embassies, and their fleets in the waters and lands of the Arabian Peninsula, so that we stop the repeated massacres over the lands of the Muslims.”
It appears that AQAP nearly achieved its goal of killing Americans with the attempted Christmas Day bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Northwest Airlines flight 253 en route to Detroit. The Nigeria-born Abdulmutallab told law enforcement investigators that he received instructions and training from al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, and, on December 28, AQAP released a message taking credit for Abdulmutallab’s attempt. Abdulmutallab employed nearly an identical tactic used by an AQAP operative attempting to assassinate the Deputy Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in August. The bomb used by the AQAP assassination operative, Abdullah Hassan al Asiri, was made from 100 grams of a powerful explosive called pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and was hidden in the operative’s underwear. Abdulmutallab reportedly used 80 grams of PETN held inside a plastic or latex pocket sewn into his underwear in the Christmas Day attempt. The similarity in the method used by both operatives suggests that Abdulmutallab was not merely an individual inspired by AQAP, but rather an operative trained and deployed by AQAP.
AQAP’s statement claiming credit for the Christmas Day attempt said that the planned-attack was “to respond directly to the unjust American aggression on the Arabian Peninsula…This comes in the aftermath of the cruel attack using cluster bombs and cruise missiles launched from American ships that occupy the Gulf of Aden against proud Yemeni tribes in Abyan, Arhab, and Shabwah [i.e. the 12/17 and 12/24 attacks], killing dozens of Muslim women and children and even killing entire families.” AQAP phrased the statement in a way to suggest that the Christmas Day effort was an attempt at avenging the 12/17 and 12/24 attacks on AQAP strongholds; however, the statement only explicitly says that the Christmas Day attempt was a response to American aggression on the Arabian Peninsula and that it came after the 12/17 and 12/24 attacks, but the statement never explicitly says that the Christmas Day attempt was a direct response to the 12/17 and 12/24 attacks. AQAP’s choice of wording was likely because Adbulmutallab bought his plane ticket to Detroit on 12/16 – one day before the first major attack on AQAP strongholds in Yemen even occurred. AQAP’s statement and the corresponding sequence of events shows that the group had intentions of striking the United States before the 12/17 and 12/24 attacks occurred. Given that AQAP’s explicitly anti-American intentions seem to have only increased in the aftermath of the 12/17 and 12/24 attacks, it appears that the group’s desire to hit the U.S. and its interests has grown since the Christmas Day attempt was put into motion.
The Christmas Day attempt is proof of AQAP’s desire and ability to strike America and American interests. The recent U.S. and Yemeni strikes on AQAP strongholds and leadership may have weakened the group, but its recent statements suggest that it is still operational and under strong leadership. AQAP reiterated its desire to strike the U.S. in its statement claiming responsibility for Abdulmutallab’s attempt: “From here, we say to the American people: since you support your leaders and you stand behind them in killing our women and our children, rejoice for what will do you harm. We have come to you with slaughter and we have prepared for you men who love death as you love life. With permission from Allah, we will come to you from where you do not expect. As you kill, you will be killed. Tomorrow is near.” AQAP has made its intentions very clear: it is no longer satisfied with attacking Saudi and Yemeni targets; it has every intention to kill Americans.
JAN 26: Nassir al Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), announced the merger between al Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni branches in a video televised by al Jazeera. (SITE Intel Group, “Al-Qaeda Leader Threatens Western Interests in Interview,” 1/27/09)
JUL 26: General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, met with President Saleh and assured him that the U.S. would support effort to “enhance security and stability” in Yemen. (AP, “Petraeus: US Will Support Yemen Anti-Terror Fight,” 7/26/09)
AUG 3: Yemeni security forces arrest “a number of suspects” in Ma’rib province with ties to al Qaeda. (Yemen Observer, “Yemeni Security Forces Arrest Several al-Qaeda Insurgents in Mareb,” 8/3/09)
SEP 6: John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, delivered a letter to President Saleh from President Obama that said the US would “stand beside Yemen, its unity, security and stability.” (Reuters, “U.S. Offers Yemen Help in ‘Fight Against Terrorism,’” 9/7/09)
NOV 1: Al Wahayshi, the leader of AQAP, called for his followers to attack transportation centers in the West using homemade bombs in an article published AQAP’s periodical “Echo of the Epics”. He specified that bombers should target those involved in wars in Muslim countries in addition to government figures and security forces in the Middle East. (Reuters, “Al Qaeda Calls For Home-Made Bomb Attacks in West,” 11/2/09)
NOV 9: Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman al Rashid, a Saudi commander in AQAP, addressed the Islamic Ummah in a video. Al Rashid proclaimed that the “Crusaders,” especially the US and NATO, were first among the enemies of Islam, and second are the Shi’ites, whose “danger to Islam and its people is more fatal than that of the Jews and the Christians.” (SITE Intel Group, “AQAP Commander attacks Shi’ites, Exhorts Jihad,” 11/9/09)
NOV 26: AQAP releases footage of members interrogating Bassam Suleiman Tarbush al Sharjabi, the Head of Intelligence in Ma’rib who was accused of being connected to the November 2002 drone strike, and of members sentencing Tarbush to death. Sharjabi is forced to acknowledge that the Saleh government “is an agent government for the Americans.” (SITE Intel Group, “AQAP Interrogates, Claims Killing Security Official,” 11/27/09)
DEC 02: Al Fallujah forum posts discussion about the desirability of taking the war to American territory—“It is guerrilla warfare in America.” The discussion indicates that 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 10: US drone strike kills Saleh al Somali, a senior al Qaeda official responsible for operations outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Al Somali is also expected of being responsible for transferring al Qaeda militants from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia. (Wall Street Journal, “Drone Kills a Leader of Al Qaeda,” 12/12/09)
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: Bombing strikes and raids – conducted in cooperation between the Yemeni and U.S. governments – target AQAP leadership in Abyan province, Sana’a, and the Arhab district northeast of Sana’a. The attacks reportedly kill the AQAP provincial emir in Abyan, among others.
DEC 19: The 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 broadcasts 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 are 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 Shabwa province in Yemen (confirmation of casualties not yet available).
DEC 25: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab ignites an explosive device aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit Metro Airport.
DEC 27: In response to the 12/17 airstrikes, AQAP issued a statement giving its condolences to the families of those who had died and saying that the attacks demonstrate that Yemen, the US and its Arab allies have colluded against Islam. The statement lays out nine points, including a call for vengeance, and concludes with a call to strike the military bases, embassies, and naval fleets in the Arabian Peninsula. (SITE Intel Group, “AQAP Responds to Abyan Airstrike,” 12/27/09)
DEC 28: AQAP released a message claiming responsibility for the Christmas Day attempt by Abdulmutallab. The message calls Abdulmutallab a “martyrdom-seeking mujahid and that with his actions, he “dispelled . . . the myth of the American and international intelligence.” The message ends with a call for all Muslims to declare total war on the “Crusaders” in the Arabian Peninsula, and follow Nidal Hassan’s example in killing “all the Crusaders with all available means of murder.” (SITE Intel Group, “AQAP Claims Failed Airplane Strike,” 12/28/09)