Al Qaeda benefits from Yemen turmoil
Followers of Ansar al-Sharia, an Al-Qaeda affiliate group in Jaar, Yemen Photo From: AFP/Getty Images
January 30th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

Al Qaeda benefits from Yemen turmoil

By CNN's Pam Benson

When President Barack Obama told Americans last week that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen "are scrambling, knowing that they can't escape the reach of the United States of America," he may have been telling only half the story.

While al Qaeda's Yemen branch has been hit hard - most notably with the killing of American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki - U.S. officials and experts say there are signs that al Qaeda is making significant gains in Yemen as the government's control over outlying regions continues to fray amid political unrest.

Furthermore, they say, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) hasn't given up its goal of striking the United States, though there have been no attempted attacks on American soil by al Qaeda since 2010.

While the death of al-Awlaki by a CIA-operated drone in September eliminated AQAP's external operations commander and chief recruiter of English-speaking militants, key players remain at-large in Yemen.

They include AQAP leader Naser al-Wuhayshi - a close associate of Osama bin Laden - and Ibrahim al-Ashiri, the skilled bomb-maker U.S. officials believe was behind the attempt to blow up a U.S. commercial airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 and a plot to bomb cargo planes belonging to such companies as FedEx the following year.

And while some of al Qaeda's most-wanted members may be "scrambling," as Obama put it during his State of the Union speech Tuesday, AQAP's goal of striking the United States either overseas or at home has not diminished, according to one U.S. official.

"AQAP hasn't changed its two main aims which are to attack the West, while establishing a safe-haven in Yemen. They may have more success at the latter if they continue to take advantage of the political unrest there, which is going to be tense for some time," said the U.S. official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, said AQAP members "are taking advantage of the chaos" in Yemen right now.

In addition to the fight against AQAP, Yemen has been wracked with protests throughout the past year, with demonstrators and rival factions demanding the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and calling for elections.

Daniel Green, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that AQAP has much more room to operate within Yemen, and offered a dire prediction: the group has an incentive to launch a spectacular attack in a presidential election year.

"They have shown a very entrepreneurial ability to get explosives into the U.S.," Green said. "I wouldn't put it past them to try and do something this year."

Most of the group's gains have been in the southern provinces where the government exercises little control, according to the experts.  Clashes between suspected militants and security forces have been particularly fierce over the past year in southern Abyan province, where suspected AQAP members held the provincial capital of Zinjibar under siege for months before eventually being flushed out.

The U.S. official agreed AQAP is "particularly strong" in the southern provinces and warned, "they'll most likely try to expand from there to establish themselves as a force in the surrounding provinces."

It appeared they did just that with the recent seizure of Radda only 100 miles south of the capital of Sanaa and considered a key transit route to the south.  Suspected militants stormed the town earlier this month, taking over government buildings and mosques and freeing inmates from jails, according to local authorities and residents.

The U.S. official acknowledged AQAP had "made some new gains" in Radda, but questioned soon after it happened whether the militants would be able to hold onto them.

"Often in the areas where AQAP has some control, they use intimidation and violence against tribal officials to force local support for their activities," the official said.

In the end, the militants relinquished control.  They agreed to leave Radda in exchange for the release of three prisoners, according to the office of the Yemeni vice president.

The U.S. official also cautioned against confusing secessionist violence with AQAP actions.

In 1990, North Yemen and South Yemen united as one country, but a secessionist movement has been gaining steam in the south, emboldened by the popular uprising against Saleh.

Green said that measuring the apparent gains of the organization is tricky.

"The challenge is discerning how much of this is al Qaeda and how much of this is just tribes taking advantage of the security vacuum to get more power."

There is also a question of whether al Qaeda is growing in Yemen.

Johnsen estimated the number of fighters at more than 1,000 - what he called a "significant increase" from the hundreds just a couple of years ago.

Two U.S. officials suggested that while difficult to determine, there are probably hundreds of hardcore operatives. When low-level and affiliated fighters are included, the total number could be anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 people, the officials said.

Meanwhile, the emergence of a group last year called Ansar al-Sharia has experts debating its connections to AQAP. The group has been linked to the takeover of Radda, according to Johnsen.

"Ansar al-Sharia seems to be a front AQAP sometimes uses in Yemen to avoid the baggage that comes with the al Qaeda name. But, they are still al Qaeda," a U.S. official said.

However, a U.S. counterterrorism official referred to Ansar al-Sharia as a social movement that favors Islamic rule in Yemen and appears to support the ideals of al Qaeda.

Johnsen thinks the group is certainly tied to AQAP and is pursing a model similar to the one the Taliban used to gain control of Afghanistan.

"These people are coming in and they are trying to provide some services to the people," said Johnsen, noting that all they have to do is be better than the Yemeni government to gain support.

Ansar al-Sharia recently released a video on its website of what it claimed to be U.S. soldiers on the roof of the Sheraton Hotel in the capital of Sanaa. There has been no confirmation of when the video was shot or whether in fact the men on the roof are American soldiers.

Johnsen said the group could use the video as a rallying cry to justify waging jihad against the United States, similar to what al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan did in response to U.S. forces being in country.

For his part, Green said he believes AQAP is also trying to balance its image among the populace having learned a lesson from the playbooks of al Qaeda operators in Iraq and Pakistan where their brutality alienated local populations.

"They are being very careful pursuing a softer policy in addition to this hard policy of fighting," Green said.

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Filed under: AQAP • Arab Spring • CIA • drones • Terrorism • Yemen
soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. mooloolababeach holidays

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    July 29, 2012 at 10:24 am | Reply
  2. Claudia

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    April 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  3. The Truth

    Al Qaeda is doomed....

    January 31, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  4. Iranacockuptheirass

    WOW...motorized camels!!

    January 31, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  5. Jason

    Wow I like what those guys have done with the place! They should really share their decorating tips.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
    • melvinslizard

      We should send 'em a couple of Hellfire missiles as a "housewarming" present.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  6. Marco

    Members of Alqaeda like little boys and camel sex.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • Iranacockuptheirass

      Yes indeed. They are the desert monkey people....May 1,000,000 camels shit on their mothers every time they touch a child

      January 31, 2012 at 9:14 am | Reply
  7. Furthermore

    Al Qaeda will never be out. I dare say the best way to ensure such groups continue to proliferate is to continue using drones. The excuse for using them matters not, the perception is all that matters and I bet those having bombs dropped by manless drones is viewed equally, or worse, than jets being used here or missiles being sent into Israel. In the minds of the offender, drones are justified because of the jets; the jets ,bomb vests, ieds, etc. are justified becasue of the drones, fighter attacks and military incursions are justified becasue of the missiles, and on and on it goes. Yes, next comes who started this and we look backtwelves years and they go back many hundreds- stupid argument to get into- winless. So, drone away baby...just another part of the wheel.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:49 am | Reply
    • mipolitic

      and furthermore there is no wheel , just a determined resovle to to keep it flatened

      January 31, 2012 at 9:11 am | Reply
    • Iranacockuptheirass

      Yes Yes....we don't see the wimpy ass suicide bombers and they don't see our drones. Tu shay mutha fucka's.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
  8. mmi16

    Cowards are afraid to live!

    January 31, 2012 at 6:19 am | Reply
  9. Mamoud

    Eye theenk that any stoopid ameerikans who trie to cum to Yemen should be executed, und ass swoon ass plossible. We Iranians and our brudders in Yemen feel the same. Ameeijkans suck big tyme. Actual;ly that iss all they do all day long. Suck suck suck. Sort of makes us sick that there aRE SUCH POIVERTS IN THE WURLD.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:20 am | Reply
    • structures

      fu** allah

      January 31, 2012 at 5:50 am | Reply
      • structures

        Fuck you Americans. You are all pigs and deserve to die. Here in the best country on earth we live without guns and without fear of our stupid Americans immigrants. How dumb they are! They think we like them when in fact they smell like gunpowder and shit. Stupid honkie bastards.

        January 31, 2012 at 6:38 am |
      • Mike

        And you are from where?

        January 31, 2012 at 7:28 am |
      • structures

        Never you mind where I am from asshole American. Suffice it to say that our country is a hundred times better than yours. I'll give you a hint. It's on the Earth.

        February 1, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Iranacockuptheirass

      AAhhhh...my favorite rag time homo.....may you smoke 100 pounds of camel shit after you had sex with them you desert monkey inbreed.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:08 am | Reply
      • mamoud

        U haf a monkey prezidennt so don tri too tell m,e about homoos. Obviously U R 1. So pleeze. Eat my shit fairy

        February 1, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  10. Gen. MacArthur; Mama's Little Fairy-Boy

    I'd like them more if they rode Harleys.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:45 am | Reply
  11. mipolitic

    this yemen thing is like a guy dressed in hunters orange playing golf. you see them a mile away . however with the fracturing of pakistan could result in a home coming ! the drones work so well , no gitmo resort required , just a mop and big shovel to fill the hole .

    January 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Reply
    • mipolitic

      update , the guys dressed in hunters orange playing in yemen were removed from amongst the living shortly afterwards on the 31 jan /12 thanks to those unreliable drones. nothing like a big club ! bring in the mop.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:06 am | Reply
  12. DAN

    There will always be Islamic jihadists and extremists, they are the anti-Christ and will continue to grow in every Islamic nation. They do not believe in the love of God but do believe they have the power of God which will make them think they can defeat the west. Just wait until the mullahs of Iran join in on their terrorist activities.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • james

      Your right

      January 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Reply
    • RAWoD

      It's not about an "anti-christ" - it's about the real world. Everyone who thinks their religion has the lead and will trump every other religion misunderstands that a rapudly growing group has given up believing in fairytales.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  13. ORVILLE

    Careful now, they all have their little constitutional rights and we have to wait until they slaughter enough people, or until the slaughter comes too close to OUR door before we act.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • Iranacockuptheirass

      Yes...the truth has been spoken...and we shall wait for the kill....

      January 31, 2012 at 12:31 am | Reply
  14. YorkyRoyal

    On the picture, I see, broken homes, broken lives, broken dreams. When will it going to end so that innocent people can live a life free of violence? Monsters like them should be diminished.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply
  15. rik

    they like motorcycles? send over the "outlaws" motorcycle gang to take care of them, maybe the hells angels as backup.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
  16. yup

    They haven hit US soil in over 10 years....it been nothing but caveman hit and run warfare....they depend on the fear of words and cowardly actions. They know another large scale attck will lead to there end.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
    • alan s

      yup: You wrote that Al Quaeda relies on cowardly actions. I would not call people who sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks "cowards".

      I agree completely that we should hunt down Al Quaeda members and kill them. But we should never, ever think of them as cowards.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
      • Jason Blair

        I disagree Alan, these guys who blow themselves up and kill innocent civilians do it because they are cowards. If they were brave they would not target civilians, and blowing themselves up is a sign of stupidity!

        January 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
      • Voice of Reason

        I think that they definitely ARE cowards, if they have all the technology and know-how to blow people up, why waste themselves on it? My guess is that they are afraid of the consequences of their actions, notice how you never hear about the Islamic Judicial systems? that's because they never work and that's the way Al-Qaeda likes it, a country without order

        January 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
      • Lefty2guns

        crazy, yes, cowards, no.

        January 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
      • james

        They are pure cowards there are none more than iranians. I have a chickes shat living next door to me. told me he was from four different countries till his kiddies said they were from iran. Kids well educated speak 7 languages, wish they could all act like these kids but theie daddy screams westernized country all the time if he dont like it they should try their 5th country.

        January 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
      • melvinslizard

        Cowards. They would rather die than face the consequences of their affiliation.

        January 31, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  17. bspurloc

    imagine if bush directed the war machine after al qaeda? Oh wait thats why we invaded afghanistan cuz they refused to hand over Osama..... but when it came to killing Osama in Tora Bora bush was already trying to invade Iraq, so killing Osama would have put an end to that...so bush changed the focus to Iraq instead of al qaeda.... 50,000 wounder soldiers later, a war that drained the economy to nothing and below.... 3 years of drones by obama has al qaeda running... IMAGINE if bush didnt change focus to iraq... just imagine....

    January 30, 2012 at 10:33 am | Reply
    • melvinslizard

      As soon as you're done wishing and dreaming you are welcome to join the rest of us in the real world...

      January 31, 2012 at 10:27 am | Reply
  18. Andrey

    Al Qaeda is like Greenpeace: it is not about winning. It is about gaining decent amoung of publicity and thus – financing from corresponding target group.
    As for gaining the freedom to operate freely and recruit people – here comes your Arab Spring. Al Qaeda has figured out how to use social media and even western liberal mass media to get much bigger piece of the world it could ever dream of otherwise.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • jj

      Saying AQ is like Greenpeace is absolutely the stupidest thing I've read today. You win the booby prize.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
      • james

        a sagging ow down boob

        January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
      • ragga

        I disagree with you jj. I think the two have alot in comman.They both believe their way is the only way. They both use terrorist tactics. They are both funded by others.

        February 1, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  19. Yaz

    They're like cockroaches, they'll just hide til it gets dark or quiet, then out they come to scurry around and do their dirty work. That's how a true coward fights..

    January 30, 2012 at 8:35 am | Reply
    • alan s

      Yaz: What they are doing is not cowardly; it is "asymmetrical warfare", and it offers their only chance of success. Only fools would confront the U.S. Army and Marine Corps head-on. Only fools would expose themselves to U.S. air power. Al Quaeda is fighting in the only way that gives their organization a chance of success.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
      • Jack Ass

        alan s, thats why we have special forces, who beat them at their own game

        January 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Tom Clark

      Like with unmaned drones?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
      • james

        screw them dump chemical on them all, a bunch of bleeotch!!!!

        January 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm |

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