FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT
The Yemen-based branch of al-Qaida has reaped its most significant return yet in terms of political and propaganda impact from the latest in its series of operations—mostly abortive—outside its home territory. Its ability to impose itself on the global media agenda and to engage the attention of the US administration is likely to enhance its status inside Yemen, where it has recently scored some notable successes in its battle with the security forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. That confrontation is now expected to escalate, and may increasingly draw in Saudi Arabia and the US as active players within Yemen.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) was formed largely as a result of the success of the Saudi authorities in dismantling al-Qaida cells within Saudi Arabia. Saudi exiles, including Said al-Shehri, AQAP’s deputy leader, and the presumed bomb specialist, Ibrahim Hassan bin Talaa al-Asiri, play prominent roles in AQAP, alongside Anwar Awlaki, a US-born Yemeni cleric credited with having inspired a Palestinian-origin US major to kill 13 fellow soldiers at a base in Texas one year ago. Prior to the latest operation, described by the US as an attempt to blow up cargo planes, AQAP’s main external operations were a failed attempt to detonate a bomb on a US airliner last Christmas by means of explosives placed in the underwear of a Nigerian adherent to the group, and an attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in August 2009 through detonating a bomb placed inside the body of Mr Asiri’s younger brother, Abdullah—he gained access to the prince’s office, but only succeeded in killing himself.
The intelligence that led to the discovery of the suspect packages aboard aircraft in Dubai and the UK, en route to the US, is said to have been provided by the Saudi counter-terrorism unit that is headed by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, probably sourced from a defector from AQAP.
The apparent plot to set off bombs inside parcels headed for the US comes after a period in which AQAP has focused much of its energy on attacking Mr Saleh’s security forces. In recent months, around 100 government officials have been killed in violent circumstances, most in incidents involving AQAP militants, but some in clashes with southern separatists or the Houthi rebels in the north of the country. The threat against government officials is greatest in Abyan, where AQAP now appears to be consolidating its presence. Senior officers are reportedly fearful of leaving their homes and the government has imposed a ban on motorcycles throughout the governorate after at least 30 security personnel have been killed in the past three months by assailants riding motorcycles.
In a sign that AQAP is increasingly viewing itself as a state player and rival to the Saleh regime, the group has announced that it is reviving the Aden-Abyan Army (AAA), Yemen’s original Islamist militant group, which was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of a group of tourists in Abyan in 1998. Some of its members were also believed to be involved in the bombing of the USS Cole, the US warship that was attacked while refuelling in Aden harbour in October 2000, in which 17 US sailors were killed. In announcing the formation of the army, the AQAP military commander, Qasim al-Raimi, stated that the group’s aim was to attack the Yemeni security forces, with a view to bringing down the Saleh regime and establishing Islamic rule throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The army, he said, “would defend the nation and its religion and seek to liberate its sacred places and clear its territories of the crusaders and their apostate agents”.
It is not immediately apparent in what way the AAA would differ from AQAP cadres, seeing as they share the same leadership and goals. However, the very term “army” denotes a regimented group of fighters, which in many ways is different to the amorphous cells of irregular militants that make up AQAP. Furthermore, AQAP militants in many instances sign up to be martyrs for their cause, whereas a soldier would more typically seek his or her own survival (although it should be noted that the USS Cole was damaged in a suicide attack). With this in mind, it would appear that the AAA is being set up as part of a long-term strategy to enlist and train both Yemeni and foreign fighters who are committed to the ultimate goal of an Islamic state and who would become the defenders of that state.
AQAP has clearly not given up on its fight against external enemies, however. On October 6th the British deputy ambassador to Yemen, Fionna Gibb, came under attack as she travelled to work, when two militants dressed as street cleaners fired rocket-propelled-grenades at her car. The missiles missed their target, injuring bystanders.
In an entirely separate and apparently unrelated incident the same morning, a disgruntled employee of OMV, an Austrian oil company, shot and killed a French worker and injured an Irish employee at the company’s head office in the capital, Sanaa. It is the second attack on the company’s premises in three months; in July AQAP militants attacked an OMV oil facility in the province of Shabwa, and came just days after OMV was awarded a new oil licence.
The two incidents, which took place in Sanaa on the same day, highlight the increased threat to foreigners in Yemen. Sanaa itself was once considered relatively secure for foreigners, but this is evidently less the case today. As a result, more foreign workers are leaving, with a throng of security advisers taking their place. Following the attack, the French government advised the partners and children of its nationals in Yemen to leave the country; Australia has also issued an upgraded travel advisory, pointing to “a very high threat of terrorist attacks”. Further restrictions are likely following the latest incident.
Drawing the US and the Saudis in
The US has been closely involved in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen since the USS Cole incident. This has included the use of drones firing missiles at suspected terrorist bases. However, Mr Saleh has sought to limit the extent of the US involvement, out of concern that this would provide another rallying call for his opponents, particularly given the risk of US air attacks resulting in heavy civilian casualties. His preferred method in tackling al-Qaida is to try negotiate trade-offs, for example releasing detainees in return for local peace deals. This has become increasingly untenable since al-Qaida in Yemen has been bolstered by the influx of Saudis. The US and Saudi Arabia seem to be content for now to leave matters in the hands of Mr Saleh’s security forces, while increasing their military and economic aid to Yemen. However, more active intervention may become inevitable if Mr Saleh fails to show any convincing results from his own efforts or if AQAP manages to carry out a more effective external operation than those it has attempted so far.