The Obama administration’s strategy to combat one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchises in the world, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), revolves around the trust it has put in the Yemeni government to kill or capture AQAP leaders, operatives, and facilitators. I have pointed out in this forum that the Yemeni government’s ties with terrorists run deep, but the U.S. hopes that its $150 million per year in military assistance will convince the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh to change its ways and fight al-Qaeda. Late last week — nearly eight months after an AQAP operative attempted the Christmas Day attack — the Yemeni government finally captured a senior AQAP operative, Huzam Majali.
Majali, a key military leader in AQAP, led a cell in the outskirts of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. The cell was responsible for plotting an attack against the British embassy in December 2009, which the Yemeni defense ministry claimed it foiled. Majali also played a key role in the October 2002 attack on a French oil tanker, the Limburg, a strike reminiscent of the USS Cole attack. Yemen certainly deserves some kudos for arresting this dangerous and hardened terrorist, but how the Yemeni government handles Majali now that he is in custody should be the primary concern of the United States government.
Yemeni security forces initially arrested Majali in late 2003, and a Yemeni court sentenced him to death in August 2004. However, Majali managed to escape from a Yemeni prison with 22 other al-Qaeda terrorists in February 2006, allegedly with the assistance of government personnel. The Yemeni government re-arrested Majali in August 2006 after he turned himself in, but it later released him when he pledged to relinquish his ties to al-Qaeda.
A true litmus test of Saleh’s commitment to combating al-Qaeda, which will thereby also evaluate the U.S.’s current strategy, will be to see what happens to Majali now. If Yemen is a genuine partner in the war on terror, it will allow U.S. and European interrogators to have access to Majali. He most likely has critical knowledge of the dynamics of AQAP, the role of U.S. born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in the group, the whereabouts of other senior operatives, and future plots. Such vital intelligence could significantly enhance U.S. efforts in combating AQAP and deterring future attacks.
The Yemeni government could also show its commitment to the war on terror by extraditing Majali to France for his role in the Limburg attack. In fact, the U.S. embassy in Sana’a should pressure the Yemeni government to do so. Yemen has claimed in the past that its laws prohibit it from extraditing its citizens, and Yemen does have a poor track record with extraditions (the U.S. has requested the extradition of several Yemeni-American terrorists, all to no avail), so an extradition of Majali to France seems highly unlikely. But Yemen should, at a minimum, keep Majali in custody, charge him for terrorism-related crimes, convict him, and follow through on his sentencing this time. Any failure to do so — especially if Majali once again becomes a free man — will expose Saleh’s true colors in the war against al-Qaeda and should force the U.S. to reconsider its approach to combating al-Qaeda in Yemen.
— Chris Harnisch is an analyst and the Gulf of Aden team lead for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.