A group called “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” based in Yemen claimed to be behind the failed Christmas day bombing attempt near Detroit. The World’s Matthew Bell reports on the group and its leaders. (/AFP/Getty Images)
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KATY CLARK: I’m Katy Clark and this is The World. The alleged attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day is having repercussions in Nigeria, the Netherlands, Yemen, and, of course, the United States. In Nigeria today, Information Minister Dora Akunyili said the country is embarrassed but not ashamed.
DORA AKUNYILI: We’re embarrassed because this young man has actually done something that is capable of rubbing off on all of us because we know that in this country we have issues yes, but definitely not terrorism.
CLARK: The flight to Detroit departed from the airport in Amsterdam. Today, the Dutch Interior Minister Guusje Ter Horst acknowledged a flaw in the airport’s security system.
GUUSJE TER HORST: We have to conclude that it is possible to pass the security with stuff on your body that is not detected by the metal detection.
CLARK: In Washington, investigators are looking into the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for the attack. The World’s Matthew Bell has more.
MATTHEW BELL: When Brian O’Neill heard that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was claiming responsibility for the failed Detroit plot, he wasn’t surprised. O’Neill is a former editor at the Yemen Observer, an English language newspaper based in the capital Sana. He says the Yemeni leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are nothing if not ambitious.
BRIAN O’NEILL: They want to be the next wave. They want to be the most powerful Al Qaeda group.
BELL: The Yemen-based Al Qaeda group claimed to be behind another recent attack. This one was in August when a suicide bomber barely missed killing Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Interior Minister. O’Neill says these incidents point to an eagerness on the part of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
O’NEILL: The attack a couple of months ago on the Deputy Interior Minister was incredibly brazen and I think they wanted to show that from Yemen, which, you know, has been a backwater. You know, people here don’t know about it. Even in the Arab world it’s kind of seen as sort of the exotic weird place, and not very well respected. And I think they wanted to show that except for maybe the main branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan we are the heirs to the throne of Al Qaeda.
BELL: Al Qaeda’s roots in Yemen go back to the founding of the organization in the 1980s. For some, they go back even further to a saying that Jihadists attribute to the prophet Mohammed.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Which says when disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.
BELL: Gregory Johnsen is an expert on Yemen and Islamic extremism at Princeton University. Like Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia, Mujahadeen from Yemen went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and in later years, Johnsen says, they were welcomed back home.
JOHNSEN: This has always been sort of the way that Al Qaeda viewed Yemen throughout the 1990s that is a place to go and relax. There was essentially a tacit non-aggression pact between the Yemeni government and Al Qaeda at the time. That is, the Yemeni government would leave Al Qaeda alone as long as the Al Qaeda fighters didn’t sort of strike at the Yemeni government. This changed with the USS Cole attack in 2000, and then even more so after September 11th, 2001.
BELL: Johnsen says that’s when Yemen’s president decided to cooperate with the U.S. against Al Qaeda. By 2003, he says they had largely put a stop to Al Qaeda-sponsored violence in Yemen, but that period only lasted a few years. Johnsen says the U.S. got distracted in Iraq. And the government of Yemen became preoccupied with domestic political unrest.
JOHNSEN: So when there was a prison break in February of 2006, of 23 Al Qaeda suspects, men who tunneled out of their prison cell into a neighboring mosque and then said the morning prayers and then walked out the front door to freedom. These individuals escaped into Yemen where there was a great deal of space in which they could operate. So people like Nasarah Rahashi [PH], the current Amir of Al Qaeda as well as one of his top deputies, Kasama Rami [PH], were able to really rebuild, reorganize and essentially resurrect Al Qaeda up from the ashes. And this is now the second incarnation of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that we’re dealing with today.
BELL: Johnsen says Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as it exists today is the product of a merger earlier this year between Yemeni and Saudi operatives. The merged group is based in Yemen and its leader has personal ties to Osama Bin Laden himself. But Johnsen describes Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a parallel organization. Not necessarily one that’s controlled by Bin Laden himself. Yemen expert, Brian O’Neill says one thing that makes Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula such a threat is the way its leaders are establishing themselves in Yemen.
JOHNSEN: What Al Qaeda is doing is they’re beginning to marry into the tribes and they’re insinuating themselves into the social fabric of Yemen. So an Al Qaeda person can be wearing a tribal hat and the Al Qaeda hat. You can be wearing those two hats and be able to be protected by the tribes, not because he’s Al Qaeda, not because of any latent sympathy towards Osama Bin Laden, the radical fundamentalism, but because he’s part of that tribe.
BELL: That’s what makes military strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen so risky. When the U.S. or its Yemeni partners try to kill these terrorist leaders, they could end up instigating a much bigger fight for an already weakened government. For The World, I’m Matthew Bell.
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