January 23, 2015 | Commentary on Yemen, Middle East, Terrorism, National Security and Defense

Al Qaeda threat grows in Yemen

Last September, President Obama told us that his strategy for taking down the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would be similar to the one his administration had “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

Those are words the prez probably would like to have back, especially with regards to Yemen.

News reports indicate Yemen is falling apart; an insurgent group known as the Houthis (from the northern part of the country) this week stormed the capital, Sanaa.

While the Houthi rebels have not posed a direct threat to the United States so far (beyond concern for the security of our Sanaa embassy) the fall of the central Yemeni government — a key U.S. counterterror ally — would mean more running room for a group that does.

You see, Yemen is the home of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — also known as AQAP.

AQAP is often described by experts as the terror group that represents the greatest threat to the American homeland, despite its lower profile in comparison to the likes of the Islamic State, now a social media superpower.

The concerns about AQAP are for good reason.

For example, there’s AQAP’s plot to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with an underwear bomb and its attempt to ship explosive printer cartridges by air from the Middle East to U.S. addresses in 2010.

The terror group is also infamous for its English-language, online magazine “Inspire” which includes “how-to” articles for terrorist wannabes, and for Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born and educated AQAP propagandist and external ops chief.

Al-Awlaki was taken out in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, but his fiery anti-West sermons continue to serve as a powerful source of inspiration for aspiring and current violent Islamist extremists.

Yemen’s AQAP is also the home of al-Qaeda’s master bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, who reportedly has been attempting not only to build nonmetallic bombs, but is training the next generation of al-Qaeda explosive experts.

This may include working with al-Qaeda’s Khorasan Group in Syria, which has been fingered in plots hatched against Europe and the United States, possibly targeting civilian airliners with bombs that can pass undetected through airport security.

Not to mention that AQAP claimed “credit” for the recent terror attack in Paris at the publication Charlie Hebdo.

Up to this time, AQAP has sought safe haven in southern Yemen for its planning, training and operations, even holding territory, despite pressure from the U.S.-supported central government.

But rocked by the Arab Spring, AQAP attacks and the (Iran-backed Shiite) Houthi insurgency, the (Sunni-led) Sanaa government appears about to collapse. An agreement between the Houthis and the government of premier Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was in the works yesterday but the question of who’s really in charge remains uncertain.

The fall of Sanaa and the potential lack of a determined opponent in the Houthis mean that AQAP will be freer to operate, increasing the threat to the West as well as the threat to the American homeland.

This chaos and confusion in Yemen is unwelcome news, of course.

What would be welcomed, in addition to dealing with the immediate unfolding crisis in Sanaa, is the emergency of a comprehensive strategy from Team Obama for taking on the growing Islamist terrorist threat in Yemen and beyond.

 - Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Boston Herald