The foiled bomb plot to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight as it descended over Detroit on Christmas day has focused new attention on the al-Qaeda franchise based in Yemen. The radicalized Nigerian Muslim who failed to destroy the airliner, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, reportedly has told the FBI that he was equipped and trained by al-Qaeda operatives while he lived in Yemen from August to early December. News of this Yemeni connection has spawned a spate of media reports about a “new front” in the war against terrorism. But those who follow terrorism issues know that Yemen long has been a stronghold of al-Qaeda and a staging area for many past terrorist attacks.
In fact, al-Qaeda’s first terrorist attack against Americans came in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden’s father, who had migrated to neighboring Saudi Arabia before the birth of the al-Qaeda leader. In December 1992, bin Laden’s followers bombed a hotel in Yemen that was used by U.S. military personnel involved in supporting the humanitarian food relief flights to Somalia.
In October 2000, seventeen American sailors on board the USS Cole, were killed in an al-Qaeda bombing in the harbor of Aden, Yemen’s main port. An earlier attack on another U.S. naval vessel, The Sullivans, had failed in January of that year when the attackers’ boat sank under the weight of its own bomb. In 2002, al-Qaeda bombed the French oil tanker Limbourg off the coast of Yemen. Later that year, a senior al-Qaeda leader was killed in Yemen in one of the first publicly revealed Predator drone attacks.
Al-Qaeda grew much stronger in Yemen following the February 2006 escape of 23 imprisoned al-Qaeda suspects, including some of the terrorists responsible for the bombing of the Cole, from a Yemeni prison. U.S. intelligence officials told the Washington Post that the well-organized jailbreak was assisted by members of Yemen’s intelligence services sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
The weakness of Yemen’s government and the escape or release of terrorists imprisoned in Yemen has been a factor that has led the United States to drag its feet on releasing more Yemeni prisoners from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, where they form the single largest group of remaining prisoners.
In fact, ABC News reported yesterday that two of the planners of the Northwest Airlines bombing were al-Qaeda members who were released from Guantanamo in 2007. The two Saudi nationals had been sent home to Saudi Arabia, where they were enrolled in an “art therapy rehabilitation program” that had little known effect on their murderous ideology.
The two later found sanctuary in Yemen, where the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda announced last January that they had merged to form “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” Yemen has become increasingly important as a base of operations for al-Qaeda as the global terrorist network has sustained losses in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in recent years. Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, has been torn by a civil war in the northern part of the country and chronic secessionist activity in the south. The government’s control over Yemeni territory also has been undermined by fractious tribes that have fiercely guarded their independence in Yemen’s mountains.
The United States has prodded the Yemeni government to take stronger action against al-Qaeda, which it previously perceived to be less of a threat than Shia rebels in the north or secessionists in the south. The launching of two missile strikes against terrorist targets this month suggests that the Yemeni government has stepped up cooperation against al-Qaeda. But the transnational terrorist organization is likely to remain a force in that troubled country for many years to come.