A Yemen-based terrorist group, once a poor stepchild of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has become the chief focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The Obama administration’s decision to temporarily close 22 U.S. embassies and consulates from West Africa to South Asia has underscored the potential threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known.
“They’re certainly the most innovative terrorist group out there today,” said Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who specializes in terrorism studies.
The precautionary move to shutter embassies and issue a worldwide threat warning came in response to intercepted communications from Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaeda chief in Pakistan, to the head of the Yemen branch, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive intelligence. Today, the State Department called on Americans living in Yemen to leave the country immediately and ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel.
In another sign of the Yemeni group’s growing clout, Zawahiri has designated Wuhayshi to become “some sort of general manager” for what remains of the core al-Qaeda organization based in Pakistan, said Seth Jones, a terrorism analyst at the RAND Corp., based in Santa Monica, California.
The Yemen chief’s new role “significantly increases his importance” and makes him a potential successor to Zawahiri to lead al-Qaeda globally, Jones said in an interview.
“That would push the core over to Yemen from Pakistan,” he said. That would send al-Qaeda’s center back to bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, a remote region called the Hadramaut that straddles the ill-defined border between eastern Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The latest threat from an al-Qaeda offshoot creates a political challenge for U.S. President Barack Obama, as Republicans accuse him of hyping claims to have terrorists on the run and privacy advocates say the warning may be used to justify greater government surveillance.
The threat posed by the Yemen branch is attributable largely to its chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri.
U.S. officials have said the Saudi national designed the underwear bomb worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. Abdulmutallab was arrested after the bomb malfunctioned.
Asiri is also considered responsible for attempting to kill a Saudi deputy minister that year by designing a device that was implanted inside a suicide bomber’s body cavity. The explosion killed the bomber; his Saudi target survived.
Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee yesterday released the names of 25 al-Qaeda militants plotting attacks in the country, including Asiri, the Yemeni defense ministry said on its website. It offered 5 million Yemeni rials, or about $23,250, for information leading to the arrest of any of them.
Hoffman called Asiri “the singlemost evil genius in the terrorism field today,” even though his attempts to kill targets and blow up airliners have failed so far.
“A terrorist’s stock in trade is generating fear and anxiety,” Hoffman said. “From their point of view, they’re doing pretty good. They just talk about a plot, and it gets us to shut down embassies and consulates.”
Some U.S. intelligence officials and others say the relative ease with which U.S. officials intercepted communications among top al-Qaeda leaders -- especially amid a worldwide debate about eavesdropping -- may indicate that they were designed as a deliberate distraction, a publicity stunt or a test of American surveillance capabilities.
“It’s been almost too easy to hear what they’re purportedly talking about,” said Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001.
“That’s the part of the puzzle I find the most confusing,” Bodine said in an interview with NPR. “They know, at least to a very large extent, what we can pick up” through electronic surveillance,
If Zawahiri and associates were talking on mobile phones, “they know we can pick this up,” said Bodine, who now teaches at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. “This is why I’m concerned this may be a distraction from a real attack.”
Jones and other analysts discount the possibility that the threat is bogus.
“A terrorist always faces a trade-off between operational effectiveness on one hand and efficiency on the other hand,” said Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst.
While al-Qaeda leaders are leery of using phones or e-mail because of the danger of eavesdropping, there may be times when communicating across continents can’t be done efficiently by a courier, said Pillar, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
“I would be surprised if they had given up electronic communications and phone communications entirely,” he said.
While the Yemen branch probably isn’t capable of conducting a 9/11-style attack, it has the resources to blow up embassies or take down an airliner, Jones said.
“They’re not big, but they’re very capable,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior associate in the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re very creative. They’re continuing trying to adapt their technologies. And they have the freedom to operate in Yemen,” a loosely governed, tribal society.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been making threats against U.S. interests since 2011, when one of its chief propagandists, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S. drone strike, said Tom Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington and a former U.S. Army officer.
The U.S. also is taking the group’s threats more seriously now because security in the region is crumbling, Lynch said.
The Arab Spring and the ouster of once-stable autocratic regimes have “put into question the capability of the region’s intelligence services in Egypt, Libya, Syria and adjoining Lebanon,” Lynch said.
“If we had specific intelligence, we would want countries in the region to run to ground local leads, but I think because of the unsettled nature of the intelligence apparatus,” the U.S. is less able to disrupt plots or declare false leads, he said.
Pillar said he doubts that there will be an attack in coming days because the U.S. is now on guard and so many embassies have been shuttered.
“If I were a plotter, I certainly wouldn’t want to hit a vacated or closed embassy,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the kind of result that someone in AQAP would want.”
Nelson, a 20-year intelligence officer who’s worked for the National Security Council and National Counterterrorism Center, wasn’t willing to rule out an attack.
“My level of concern is still high,” he said. “This is a very real and credible warning, and they are a very creative and adaptive adversary.”