Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Horn of Africa, East Africa and Sahel region
Commentary and Analysis by Ambassador John Price
The Republic of Yemen: Al-Qaeda’s backyard
The Republic of Yemen is divided into two principal Islamic religious factions, the Shia Zaydi sect in the north, and Sunni Shafi sect in the south. Before 1990, Yemen consisted of two autonomous states–the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south.
Both states agreed to form the Republic of Yemen on May 22, 1990. Ali Abdullah Saleh became president, and maintained an autocratic control over the country until 2011. Yemen with a population of 26 million people, and territory larger than California, shares a 1,100 mile border with Saudi Arabia to the north, and a 350 mile border with Oman to the east.
As has been the history in most tribal societies, combining differing ethnic cultures and political structures is most difficult. Democratic principles of power sharing and combining the diverse tribes in Yemen proved futile, resulting in a civil war in 1994. Instability caused by this tenuous union continues today.
To add to the tumultuous situation, a number of al-Qaeda and Arab fighters who were recruited by Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980′s, left and found a safe haven in Yemen. Al-Qaeda and Islamist insurgents leaving Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S. led military surge, took a cache of weapons with them. These seasoned fighters were welcomed by the tribal leaders in the southern part of Yemen who were resisting Saleh’s government.
Many Yemenis had begun protesting against the wide government corruption, and wanted to oust President Saleh’s regime. The protests turned violent. Soon there was international pressure on Saleh to resign. At first he refused to step down. There was an assassination attempt on his life in June 2011 that left him critically injured. On November 23, 2011 Saleh agreed to a transfer of power to a new government. Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi was selected, and named new cabinet members and military advisers. Presidential elections were scheduled for 2013, but due to the instability in the country were moved up to February 2012. Hadi the former vice president was elected president.Sanaa, the capital, is a historically important walled city, with an Islamic heritage going back to the First Century. Yemenis for the most part are still living in the past, scattered in tribal villages throughout the rugged landscape, many without modern conveniences. Yemen at one time was part of the powerful Islamic Empire, controlled by Sultan Saladin in the Twelfth Century.
Osama bin Laden was a member of the wealthy Saudi bin Laden construction family, with ties to the Yemeni Kindite clan. He became a student of Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani who became his mentor, and kept strong ties with him. According to reports President Saleh also had ties with the popular al-Zindani, who the U.S. designated as an international terrorist.
It was in the 1990′s that al-Qaeda established a strong presence in central and southern Yemen, where they were protected by local tribesmen that did not want government interference in their region. In addition many young recruits were encouraged by imams to move to Yemen, where they trained with al-Qaeda. Former detainees held at Guantanamo Bay also found their way to Yemen.
The U.S. born radical Islamic imam, Anwar al-Awlaki established his base of operations in Yemen in 2004, and developed a large following of young Muslims, who were radicalized by his narrow interpretation of the Koran—and incited to perform jihadist attacks. Richard Reid the British-born shoe bomber and the Nigerian-born underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab were among al-Awlaki’s students and followers.
In September 2011 al-Awlaki was killed in a Predator drone missile attack. However it will be difficult to eradicate the radical Islamic teachings of imams like al-Awlaki, bent on the destruction of western civilization, in their quest for world domination under Sharia. Radical leaders will continue to be killed by drones, CIA operatives, and Joint Special Operations forces, but a new generation of young radical followers will continue in the jihadist movement. Several of al-Awlaki’s protégés are becoming leaders in Yemen today.
In the missile attack against al-Alwaki, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, a “rising star” from Saudi Arabia, was not among those killed. Al-Asiri reportedly is the creative inventor of the underwear explosive device, and recently perfected a newer non-detectable version. Such an underwear explosive device was used in an attempt to blow up a jetliner over Detroit on December 25, 2009. A plan to blow up an America bound plane using the non-metallic version was recently foiled. Reports also indicated al-Asiri made explosive devices used in several attacks by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since 2009. Al-Asiri the mastermind of these planned attacks is reportedly still hiding in the mountains near Shabwa and Marib, a region controlled by al-Qaeda’s leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a former confidant of Osama Bin Laden.
President Saleh, after years of tumultuous fighting between the Yemeni military and al-Qaeda militants, was not able to bring stability to the country or make any inroads in capturing al- Qaeda members operating freely in the rugged mountainous region. President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is now battling the powerful group known as Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), associated with al-Qaeda, which has launched a series of deadly attacks in Yemen since February 2012; and this week a suicide bomber strapped with explosives killed over ninety military soldiers in Sanaa.
The U.S. has pledged to help the Yemeni government, to capture or kill al-Qaeda members, by sending in Special Operations Forces and the CIA to train and give logistical support to the military. Hadi has vowed to bring Yemen under control, by driving the Islamic insurgents from the country.
“An Obama administration official said the U.S. is constantly trying to assess what Yemen needs to aid its fight against the terror network which U.S. intelligence believes is the most active al- Qaeda outfit plotting attacks against the U.S. and Americans”, as noted in the CNN article: “US has keen interest in working with Yemen to fight extremists” by Pam Benson, May 14, 2012.
As the U.S. and its allies continue to win battles against al-Qaeda and Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan there is evidence that the fleeing fighters are ending up in places like Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula. Those fleeing Egypt and Libya are ending up in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania and Western Sahara in Africa.
Terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in the Arabian Peninsula go back to the 1983 U.S. embassy and military barracks bombing in Beirut, the 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Kuwait, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 USS Cole attack at the Port of Aden in Yemen.
It was in Sudan that Osama bin Laden plotted many of the terrorist attacks. Among them was the USS Cole bombing in which, reportedly, the Sudanese government provided support for the terrorists by shipping of explosives to Yemen, and then helping the leaders escape on the state owned airline.
The country of Djibouti lies on the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, a key terrorist transit point, just 17 miles from At-Turbah in Yemen. In December 2002 the U.S. Central Command established the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion base in Djibouti. The objective was to cover the geographic region of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Seychelles. The primary function was to conduct security operations, training, humanitarian assistance, combat terrorism and deny extremist Islamist groups from utilizing the vast territories in the Horn of Africa and East Africa as a safe-haven.
To complicate our security efforts in the region, on April 25, 2007 the Middle East Development Company (MED), gave the Noor City Development group located in Napa California the go-ahead to design a proposed 17 mile bridge structure crossing the Red Sea at its shortest point; connecting Yemen to Djibouti, at a cost of $ 10 billion dollars. MED is controlled by Tarek bin Laden the half-brother of Osama bin Laden. In the 1990′s he was the general supervisor of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). This was a Saudi NGO that was designated by the U.S. as financially aiding al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The U.S. should be greatly concerned about having well trained and armed Islamist militants only 17 miles from Djibouti, the closest country to the “Gateway of Africa”.
Yemen has long been destabilized by the presence of al-Qaeda. In the 2000 USS Cole attack seventeen sailors were killed. In October 2002 there was a similar attack on the French tanker Limburg, in which one Bulgarian crewman was killed. There were further attacks in Yemen against oil facilities which hired foreign workers, one such attack occurring in March 2003 in which a Canadian was killed. Then in September 2006 four terrorist bombers and a security guard were killed in a foiled suicide attack against two western oil refineries. In July 2007 there was an attack against tourists at the historical site of the Queen of Sheba Temple in Marib, in which a terrorist suicide bomber drove his vehicle into several tourist cars killing eight Spanish tourists, and two Yemeni guides. Yemeni government forces have been fighting the radical Islamists ever since, with the help of Special Operations Forces based in Djibouti.
While serving as U.S. ambassador to Mauritius with oversight for Comoros there was concern about the number of imams who were coming from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, living in mosques in the villages, and teaching in the madrassas. These Islamic preachers were offering scholarships to the young students, to travel to these countries for further education— radical indoctrination for a new generation ready to serve the jihadist movement.
NATO’s operation helped topple Muammar Gaddafi, but did not protect the large arsenal of weapons from leaving Libya. Unprotected these weapons fell into the hands of Libyan rebel groups, al-Qaeda, and Taureg mercenaries going back to Mali. These Taureg rebels have united with an al-Qaeda linked group, taking control of large sections of northern Mali. To add to the danger in the Maghreb and Sahel regions, Libyan arms have also reached Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Somalia in East Africa.
With the regime change in Yemen, after thirty years of authoritarian rule, peace may still not take hold. Government military attacks against al-Qaeda, supported by local tribesmen, will not deter their seeking a government under Sharia. This is the same concern as in Egypt and Libya, where the Salafists want to create Islamic states under Sharia.
“An Islamist who believes that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States were an American conspiracy is the front-runner in Egypt’s presidential race, a new poll shows”, as noted in the Washington Times article by Ben Birnbaum on May 21, 2012.
The presence of al-Qaeda in the region has also been felt in Syria recently with two suicide car bombs that killed 55 people a week ago; which will continue as the U.S. seeks regime change to take out President Bashar al-Assad the authoritarian leader. Further destabilization in the region could open the door to Salafists in their attempt to take control of the Arabian Peninsula.
“With the evident failure of an international peace plan designed to end the violence in Syria, recent actions by the Obama administration indicate the White House could be inching toward a military response, a Senate Armed Services Committee member said”, as noted in the DEFCON Hill article by Carlo Munoz and Jeremy Herb on May 20, 2012.
In the Reuters article by Khaled Yacoub Oweis on May 21, 2012, he noted, “A power struggle within Syria’s main opposition group is pitting Islamists against secular politicians and exiled leaders against activists at home, further undermining its claim to be an alternative to President Bashar al-Assad”.
In my judgment, we should continue to seek a political solution, as an alternative to the U.S. opening another battle front, which would create an opportunity for radical Islamists and al-Qaeda to decide the composition of the next government in Syria. To undertake any regime change, the U.S. needs to have Syrian leadership ready to fill the void, until democratic elections can be held. Chaos, so far, has been the standard in most of the recent regime changes. If we are not careful we will help the jihadist movement in its quest to create a caliphate under Sharia, in the Arabian Peninsula.
Suspected U.S. drone kills three Yemen militants: official
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Roche,
Thursday May 17, 2012
But many say U.S. drone attacks, which have often killed civilians and are deeply resented by Yemenis, may do more harm than good, potentially discrediting Hadi as a lackey of Washington and turning the wider population against him.
U.N. chief believes al Qaeda behind Syria car bombs
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Mohammad Zargham), May 17, 2012
(Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday he believed al Qaeda was responsible for two suicide car bombs that killed at least 55 people in Syria a week ago and that the death toll in the country’s 14-month conflict was now at least 10,000.
Damascus has maintained all along that it is facing a “terrorist” conspiracy funded and directed from abroad, not least by resource-rich Gulf monarchies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have called for arming the fighters aiming to oust Assad.
Syria earlier this month sent the United Nations the names of 26 foreign nationals it said had been apprehended after coming to fight in Syria. It described 20 of those as members of al Qaeda who had entered the country from Turkey.
Yemen Moves to Recapture Towns Controlled by Islamist Insurgents
By ROBERT F. WORTH May 15, 2012
The spread of Islamist control in southern Yemen has been a deep embarrassment to the Yemeni government and a source of grave concern to the United States and Saudi Arabia, the two chief targets of the local Qaeda affiliate.
At least 44 killed in offensive on Yemen militants
By Mohammed Mukhashaf, May 15, 2012
Since the start of anti-government protests in early 2011, Islamist militants calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) have expanded their influence in Yemen, seizing several towns and swathes of territory in the south.
Although the group is inspired by al Qaeda, the precise nature of their operational ties is unclear.
Both seek the application of Islamic law and Ansar al-Sharia this month said it had released more than 70 captured Yemeni soldiers on orders from Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
President Obama executive order gives Treasury authority to freeze Yemeni assets in U.S.
By Karen DeYoung, Published: May 15 | Updated: Wednesday, May 16, 2012
President Obama issued an executive order Wednesday giving the Treasury Department authority to freeze the U.S.-based assets of anyone who “obstructs” implementation of the administration-backed political transition in Yemen.
Profile: Al-Qaeda ‘bomb maker’ Ibrahim al-Asiri
BBC: May 9, 2012
Militant Tied to Ship Bombing Is Said to Be Killed
By ERIC SCHMITT, May 6, 2012
A senior Qaeda militant in Yemen linked to the deadly bombing of an American warship there in 2000 was killed in an airstrike on Sunday, the Yemeni government said, in the latest sign of an escalating American campaign to counter the terrorist threat there.
The Yemeni authorities said the militant, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, 37, who has been on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted Terrorists list in connection with the bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole that killed 17 sailors in October 2000, died in the strike in Shabwa Province in one of the rugged tribal areas controlled by insurgents.
The Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was responsible for an attempt to blow up a jetliner over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, as well as a plan to blow up American cargo planes using printer cartridges packed with explosives.