Why Did AQAP Upstage Bin Laden With Xmas Bomb?
By James Gordon Meek
As Washington’s response to the attempted Christmas bombings descends into the spin cycle of recrimination without true accountability, a major question has emerged about the motive behind Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s martyrdom operation. President Obama in his weekly radio address said the 23-year-old Nigerian suspect in custody “joined” Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an “affiliate” of Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistan-based group, which “trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”
But why did Al Qaeda’s small franchise - which formed in Saudi Arabia in 2003, staged a bombing spree, fought losing gun battles in Saudi streets, but gained strength after a 2006 jailbreak in Yemen, where it has relocated - launch an “external” operation against the U.S. homeland?
Terrorism analysts are wondering what the answer to this question may be, and “so are we,” a top White House aide told me Sunday.
So for whatever Team Obama is certain of, in terms of the suspect’s ties to what had previously been a regionally focused terror group, they are much less certain why AQAP is suddenly trying to upstage “core” Al Qaeda, headed by Bin Laden, with a U.S. strike. Past attacks by AQAP had targeted U.S. interests such as our embassy in Sanaa - which Obama closed on Sunday - but never on American soil.
The President’s counterterror chief John Brennan told NBC’s “Meet The Press” that, “Now it’s very clear that they’re trying to bring these attacks to the homeland. We’re not gonna let them do that. So, we’re gonna take strong action against them.”
Brennan said “everything is possible” as far as retaliation goes - including U.S. military strikes, which I’m told took place Dec. 17 and 24 during Yemeni government raids prior to the Christmas attack by Abdulmutallab. A third set of raids occurred last week north of Yemen’s city Bajil. A senior Yemeni government official told me that the operation was supposed to go down last Thursday but was moved up one day.
“There’s a mosque there we’ve been keeping an eye on” as an AQAP hideout, the top Yemeni official told the New York Daily News last week. “Three raids in 12 days - we’re on a roll.”
The raid last week by Yemen’s special forces and fighter jets came a day after Obama raised the profile of America’s clandestine counterterror war in the Horn of Africa region by stating America will hunt jihadis “whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.”
Ex-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told NBC that Yemen has been on the counterterror radar screen since Bin Laden’s thugs blew a hole in the Navy destroyer USS Cole right before the 2000 presidential election.
“As pressures increased on Al Qaeda in the tribal region of Pakistan, we always looked to Yemen and Somalia as a place where the senior leadership could flee to,” Hayden said Sunday. But, “the senior leadership has not gone there.”
Looking at the operational tempo of CIA armed drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas over the past 17 months, it’s easy to see why Bin Laden’s compañeros might eye Yemen as a safer locale. A year ago, the Daily News's Mouth of the Potomac Blog and the Counterterrorism Blog posted my exclusive on the CIA’s AfPak hit list. There have been 50 drone strikes since Obama’s inauguration, according to Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio, and a counterterror source provided me with an updated list of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders added to the “involuntary martyrdom” rolls in the past year:
* Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan - Linked to the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
* Abu Sulaiman al-Jaziri - A senior trainer and external operations plotter
* Baitullah Mehsud — Leader of the Pakistani Taliban
* Yahyo - A leader of the Islamic Jihad Union
* Saleh al-Somali - A senior Al Qaeda external operations planner
Yemen’s battlespace - if that’s the appropriate term - falls under the Pentagon’s Central Command (CENTCOM) and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. The CJTF-HOA website doesn’t list Yemen officially as part of its hearts and minds humanitarian mission, but a map of its “operating area” includes the oil-rich desert nation on the opposite side of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
“I was in Yemen in August. And we have a growing presence there … of Special Operations, Green Berets, intelligence,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman told Fox News last week.
Last February, Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri asked in a speech, “How, oh noble and defiant tribes of the Yemen, can you agree to let the Yemen be a supply center for the Crusade against the Muslim countries? How can you agree to let the ruling authority in Yemen be the CIA?”
Apparently many jihadis heard Zawahiri loud and clear. Last month’s raids against Al Qaeda targets by Yemen’s security forces with American drones, and what Brennan confirmed was U.S. intelligence support, came as a result of two developments.
“We’ve witnessed [Al Qaeda] operatives coming from the Horn of Africa across the Red Sea, from South Asia in the Hindu Kush and Pakistan, and from our northern borders this year,” the Yemeni official told me last week. “Secondly, Al Qaeda has started killing our best intelligence and top criminal investigation officials in the local areas.”
“Yemen has always been on our radar — we’ve had advisers there,” says retired Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Jim Gavrilis. But as far as aggressive counterterror operations go, the U.S. has fallen short and Obama hasn’t deployed the full capabilities of the Special Operations community. “They’ve got stallions in the stable but they don’t let them run that often,” Gavrilis says.