TerrorismYemen chaos makes the country a haven for an al-Qaeda affiliate
Over the past year, while ISIS gained control of vast territories in Syria and Iraq, U.S. drone strikes and military raids in Yemen drove al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) into hiding. The current chaos in Yemen’s multi-sided war, however, has allowed AQAP militants to recreate a haven which counterterrorism experts say could help it launch terrorist attacks. U.S. officials acknowledge the changes on the ground, but say U.S. strategy has not changed. “Our efforts have to change their character but remain steady in their intensity,” said Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
Over the past year, while ISIS gained control of vast territories in Syria and Iraq, U.S. drone strikes and military raids in Yemen drove al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) into hiding. The current chaos in Yemen’s multi-sided war, however, has allowed AQAP militants to recreate a haven which counterterrorism experts say could help it launch terrorist attacks.
Last fall, the Houthis, a Shiite minority group supported by Iran, overran Sana, the capital of Yemen, and took over much of the government. The Houthis then moved south, and as they began to close in on Aden, the country’s economic hub, a Saudi-led coalition of moderate Sunnis state has been conducting, since 26 March, a campaign of aerial strikes against the Iran-supported Houthis.
The Yemeni government toppled by the advancing Houthis was a pro-American government and a partner in the war against al-Qaeda and its local affiliates, and AQAP leaders in Yemen were quick to take advantage of the fact that the U.S. now finds itself without this local ally. According to the Los Angeles Times, in the past few weeks fighters aligned with AQAP have sized territories in Yemen, robbed roughly $1 million from a Yemeni central bank branch, broke into a prison, and captured a military base, in the process improving the terror group’s ability to recruit, wage attacks, and finance its operations. AQAP militants have also seized a regional airport, a coastal oil terminal, and a weapons depot containing armored vehicles and rockets.
They “are doing exactly what we expected them to do, which is take advantage of the chaos,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said last Friday.
Still the threat posed by AQAP goes beyond the battle in Yemen. U.S. intelligence officials consider AQAP the most active and most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise, mostly due to its global strategy. The group has repeatedly attempted to smuggle sophisticated bombs onto U.S. passenger and cargo planes. It was AQAP’s top bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who assembled the underwear bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate on a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit in December 2009. Asiri also hid bombs in printer cartridges that were meant to detonate in cargo planes over U.S. cities in 2010. The devices were intercepted after a tip from Saudi intelligence.
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombers read instructions on how to build a pressure cooker bomb in Inspire, an English-language magazine published by AQAP. Earlier this year, AQAP claimed responsibility for planning the shooting at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo.
The crisis in Yemen has given AQAP “a lot more elbow room,” said Stephen Seche, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. With the Saudi airstrikes focused on Houthi rebels, AQAP militants continue to grab territory, playing out the same strategy ISIS continues to carry out in Syria and Iraq. “If they can seize and hold territory … if they can loot banks, they are seen as more viable and can recruit troops,” he said.
Pentagon officials insist that the U.S. strategy in Yemen is still intact despite having a special operations unit and intelligence officials forced out of the country last month. It was reported last week that Ibrahim al-Rubaish, an AQAP spiritual leader and former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
“Our efforts have to change their character but remain steady in their intensity,” said Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.