This article was last modified on September 16, 2013.


Empire Strikes First: The Future of al-Qaeda 2 of 2

Last month we covered al-Qaeda’s number one man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and discussed his decades of terror that have continued to this day. This month we will focus on the faction of al-Qaeda that is the most deadly and threatening to America today: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (commonly abbreviated AQAP), the successor of the organization that orchestrated the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, where seventeen American sailors were killed, and thirty-nine were injured.

AQAP was formed in 2009 by the merger between two terror cells in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. While created independently of the main al-Qaeda group, AQAP has similar goals and claims to be subservient to Zawahiri and other top leaders. (This is the common way al-Qaeda cells are created. A group forms together and claims to be al-Qaeda rather than being created top-down. This allows the organization to appear larger than it probably is while maintaining regional independence. Few regional leaders ever meet the central leadership.)

Their tentacles reach much farther than Yemen and the Middle East. Carlos Leon Bledsoe, a Muslim convert who had spent time in Yemen, opened fire with an assault rifle on soldiers in front of a military recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas on June 1, 2009. He killed Private William Long, and wounded Private Quinton Ezeagwula. Bledsoe said that he was affiliated with and had been sent by AQAP. In his possession at the time were an SKS rifle, a Mossberg International 702 rifle with scope and laser sight, two handguns, a silencer, binoculars and 562 rounds of ammunition. “I do feel I’m not guilty,” he told the press. “I don’t think it was murder because murder is when a person kills another person without justified reason.”

AQAP said it was responsible for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit on December 25, 2009. You may recall that Abdulmutallab tried to set off plastic explosives sewn to his underwear, but failed to detonate them properly.

By 2010, the Yemen-based group had surpassed Pakistan as the source for terrorist attacks, with the only other faction even close to their success rate being based in nearby Somalia, a country notorious for its lack of any real government or law enforcement. The most dangerous aspect of the group, as already hinted at, is its ability to influence people in the United States.

Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, had corresponded with AQAP and in one e-mail noted, “I can’t wait to join you (in the afterlife).” Faisal Shahzad, convicted of the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010, told interrogators that he was “inspired by” AQAP. Barry Walter Bujol of Hempstead, Texas was arrested that same month for trying to provide money and equipment to AQAP. Court documents alleged that he exchanged e-mails with and received advice from them over a period of several months, including advice on how to help al-Qaeda and how to start a jihadi website that could not be traced.

A bomb plot was discovered on October 29, 2010, when two explosive-filled packages bound for the United States via cargo planes were found, based on intelligence received from government intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. The packages originated from Yemen, and were addressed to outdated addresses of two Jewish institutions in Chicago. The man who constructed the bombs, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, remains at large and has been working on “surgically implanted improvised explosive devices” — bombs that can be placed under the skin, and contain no metal, allowing them to easily get past X-rays and metal detectors. If his work pans out, we could be entering a whole new level of airborne terror.

In November 2010 the group announced a strategy, called “Operation Hemorrhage”, that it said was designed to capitalize on the “security phobia that is sweeping America.” The program would call for a large number of inexpensive, small-scale attacks against United States interests with the intent of weakening the American economy. The cargo plane plot was the first strike, and allegedly took three months to plan and $4200 to implement. The goal was not a large death toll, but an attempt to force the government to spend billions of dollars on preventive security screening measures. Thus far, this strategy seems to have failed.

The most decisive American victory against AQAP came two years ago. On September 30, 2011, a US drone attack in Yemen resulted in the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the group’s leaders, and Samir Khan, the editor of Inspire, its English-language magazine. Both were American citizens, raising the question of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that no citizen shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. While no one argues these two were innocent, the execution of criminals without a trial does raise eyebrows for some.

On the subject of drones, the pace of drone attacks in Yemen quickened significantly in 2012, with over twenty strikes in the first five months of the year, and forty-two overall, compared to ten strikes during the course of 2011. This year has seen a decrease on average, with one exception: between July 27 and August 10, 2013, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen. One senior AQAP member, Qaeed al-Dhahab, was killed in a drone strike just hours after being married on August 30, 2013. He was part of a group that had previously fought in Iraq.

Outside of the Fifth Amendment issue, drone strikes raise many other questions, both legal and moral, including the issue of civilian casualties. On the bright side, drone precision seems to be increasing: in 2009, three times as many civilians as combatants were killed. So far this year (as of September 17), of the 93 confirmed kills, only two were civilians. While no level of innocent death should be “acceptable”, this is still quite an impressive feat. Some people are still concerned that we are entering a world not unlike “Ender’s Game”, where the violence is abstract and more like a video game; yet, if the overall casualties decrease, perhaps this pragmatism outweighs any moral concerns?

Up next for observers of the war on terror is the federal trial of Nigerian citizen Lawal Olaniyi Babafemi, who will be extradited to New York and face charges of providing support to AQAP. Among other things, he was given weapons training and was provided with $9000 to help recruit other Nigerians to al-Qaeda. (How the United States has the authority to try a man who was never in the country is unclear, but the evidence that will come out at trial could greatly aid what we already know about the organization’s networks.)

Of course, the whole war is not as simple as black and white, us and them. Once you add Egypt and Syria to the mix, you find that all too often we are siding with al-Qaeda while simultaneously doing battle against them. And that is why this column must keep existing… to sort out the facts, make them palatable, and hopefully help readers learn about the complexity of the world and our place in it.

Gavin Schmitt (gavin6942@yahoo.com) doesn’t think the war on terror will end in his lifetime, but at least it’s job security.

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