Terrorists associated with the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) appear to be linked to a plot that placed explosive-laden packages aboard flights destined for the U.S. The government’s rapid response ensured these packages did not cause any deaths and revealed once again the competence of U.S. anti-terrorism agents. Yet this emerging plot also raises concerns about this administration’s lack of a strategy to defeat members of the al-Qaeda-led network in Yemen and around the world.
President Obama confirmed on Friday afternoon that two packages from Yemen containing explosive material and detonators represented a credible terror plot. Both packages appeared destined for Jewish places of worship in Chicago, one via Dubai in the UAE and the other via the East Midlands in the U.K. Authorities in both places of transit intercepted the suspicious packages. The U.S. is reportedly hunting for additional explosive devices; Saudi Arabian intelligence services reportedly provided the information that led to the interception of the two packages found thus far.
The president did not explicitly say that his administration believes that AQAP is responsible for the plot. However, both he and Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan stated that AQAP was a group of concern. Brennan also stated that AQAP is “the most active operational” group within the al-Qaeda network outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. authorities have reported that the explosive material present in the packages was likely PETN — the same material used by AQAP in the Christmas Day attack and in an August 2009 suicide assassination attempt on the deputy interior minister of Saudi Arabia — and that the detonator in one of the bombs was very similar to the one employed in the Christmas Day attack.
Such evidence has led U.S. officials to believe that AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri and other AQAP elements were responsible. Asiri is reportedly in regular contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the chief propagandists of the militant Islamist network led by al-Qaeda and a key leader within AQAP. In Yemen, only AQAP has displayed the motivation and capacity to conduct international attacks, and it is very likely that they had a guiding hand in the package plot.
AQAP appears to have honed tactics that allow it to create significant havoc and fear with minimal risk to its organization. These tactics were first apparent in the Christmas Day attack. In this most recent plot, Qatar Airways reported that the package bomb that traveled on one of its airplanes could not be detected with X-Ray machines or bomb-sniffer dogs. The bombs also employed sophisticated detonation devices linked either to a timer or a mobile-phone SIM card. The fact that the bombs were difficult to detect and capable of being detonated remotely increased the likelihood that the packages would succeed in leaving Yemen and cause damage, decreasing the need for AQAP to deploy an operative abroad, as it did in the Christmas Day attempt. Keeping its operatives within Yemen uses fewer AQAP resources and potentially exposes less of the AQAP organization.
AQAP executed a terrorist attack that created worry around the world and consumed the resources and attention of authorities on three continents. The plot also opens the door for an attack type that is much moredifficult to prevent: bombs that can avoid discovery by sniffer dogs or X-ray machines. If no major AQAP leaders face arrest, AQAP will have accomplished all of this without any real damage to its organization. Yemeni officials have thus far arrested only two individuals connected to the package plot — a mother and her daughter — and do not have a good record when it comes to detaining significant AQAP leaders (see background on AQAP and Yemen here). On Sunday, following large student protests, Yemen released both women. Authorities reportedly believe terrorists may have stolen the younger woman’s identity when signing the shipping manifest that initially tied her to the package plot.
The sophistication of the package plot undercuts the claim that our enemies do not have a strategy and lack competence. Coordinating the packages through multiple flight routes to arrive at similar times in the U.S. and employing sophisticated bomb design required extensive planning. AQAP’s hold on territory in Yemen allows the group to conduct such operational coordination with lessened interference from law enforcement authorities. The group likely sees creating widespread fear and forcing authorities to expend resources as beneficial to its interests (namely, expanding its fundraising and recruiting base while maintaining its hold on power in Yemen).
If our enemies have a strategy to attack Americans and weaken our power structure, why do we not have a strategy to attack and destroy the al-Qaeda-led network? The president again today recognized that al-Qaeda and its affiliated parts are the enemy. However, he did not state how he expects to destroy the enemy network’s safe havens. What is the plan for reducing al-Qaeda’s power in Yemen? Has the administration seen any measurable successes in Yemen against AQAP since the Christmas Day attack? Are we today in a significantly different position than we were in December 2009, when we were attacked by a group with a stronghold in Yemen, and when we lacked a strategy to deal with AQAP, despite some U.S. policy attention to Yemen over the preceding year?What is the strategy to deal with al-Qaeda-linked groups outside of Yemen?
Three attacks on the U.S homeland linked to al-Qaeda groups appear to have occurred in fewer than twelve months. Yet the administration continues to lack a strategy to reduce the foundational strength of the enemy network –its territorial safe havens in Yemen, West Africa, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa. The packages plot did not harm American citizens thanks to intelligence provided by the Saudi government and effective measures taken by the intelligence community and law enforcement, both in the United States and by its allies and partners. Yet homeland security should only be used as a last-resort safety net. Only a strategy that reduces terrorist power abroad will reduce threats to the American homeland in the long term.
— Charlie Szrom is senior analyst and program manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.