Evaluating Christmas Bomber's Yemen Connection

The failed attacker reportedly received the explosives from al-Qaeda in Yemen

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Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian responsible for the failed Christmas attack on Northwestern flight 253 over Detroit, doesn't have the usual history of a would-be international terrorist. An engineering student at University College in London and the son of a Nigerian banker, Abdulmutallab reportedly connected with al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, who then provided him with the explosives.

The story is still developing and details on his connection to Yemen-based al-Qaeda remain sketchy. But the story has drawn intense scrutiny on the country. Concerns about Yemen and terrorism have been rising of late. We recently explored whether Yemen could become the next Afghanistan and just last week looked at a large, American-aided air strike there. Here's what experts and pundits are saying about the short- and long-term threat of terrorism from Yemen.

[I]f Mudallad's admission is true, then this means that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) played a role in the plot, and perhaps even orchestrated it. AQAP is headquartered in Yemen and was formed after al Qaeda's two Arabian branches – one in Saudi Arabia, the other Yemen – merged. U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly pointed to AQAP as the strongest al Qaeda branch outside of South Asia. [...]
We can only speculate about who within AQAP assisted Mudallad – if in fact he did receive assistance from AQAP. But it is not speculative at all to note that if AQAP did support Mudallad’s plot, then this puts an exclamation point on security concerns about Yemen. Mudallad’s story raises the possibility that AQAP is playing a larger role in promulgating international terrorism – not just fighting an insurgency that threatens the government of Yemen. This is a sign of strength, indeed."
So from February 2006 up to today, we have this second phase of the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen. And this is when al-Qaeda has really become a threat, because they've certainly learned from the first phase. They changed a lot of their tactics, and since February '06 up until now, they've done a very good job of really building a durable infrastructure that can sustain and withstand the loss of key leaders, so when you assassinate cell leaders, you don't find the organization crumbling down around himself.
At this point al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula doesn't seem to have the logistical and infrastructure capabilities to have what took place in Afghanistan, what was planned there as well as in Germany. But it's really difficult to know. I mean, this is an organization that, when they first got their restart, if you will, in February 2006, they were building up from ashes, they're essentially like the Phoenix rising up from the ashes. This is an organization that started out with nothing and in just under four years, has really made themselves into quite a powerful organization, an organization that is really so strong and so entrenched in Yemen, that there's not going to be a short war between the US and Yemeni governments against al-Qaeda - it's going to be a really hard slog, and so I think the worry for US policy makers is, well, maybe today there isn't an immediate threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula against the US homeland, or the US mainland; in a year or two years, it's really different to suggest that that wouldn't be the case.
  • We Have Yemen Covered  Matthew Yglesias insists that the Obama administration knows what it's doing. "Al-Qaeda's ideological support appears to be on the wane. The logistical capabilities displayed by things like this attempted airplane explosion are unimpressive. Military campaigns are underway against their hideouts in Yemen and Pakistan. Things are basically going fine."
  • Conservatives Exaggerate Yemen Threat  The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen writes, "If the reaction from right-wing blogs is any indication, conservatives are already in full-tantrum mode. (Gold star to the reader who can identify a prominent far-right site demanding U.S. officials begin torturing Abdulmutallab.)" He adds, "[T]he Obama administration is paying a great deal of attention to Yemen. [...] The attack of al Qaeda in Yemen late last week -- personally approved by President Obama -- was executed with 'intelligence and firepower' supplied by the United States, representing the widest offensive against Yemeni jihadists in years."
  • Obama's Push In Yemen  Think Progress chief Faiz Shakir surveys. "Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected al Qaeda hide-outs over the past two weeks 'with what American officials described as intelligence and firepower supplied by the United States. The assaults were Yemen’s widest offensive against jihadists in years.' President Obama reportedly personally approved the use of 'military hardware, intelligence and other support to Yemeni forces' in their assault on al Qaeda. Moreover, both Obama and his homeland security adviser, John Brennan, have cited Yemen as a key concern," he writes. "[T]he evidence is clear that the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen has been a focal point for the Obama administration."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.