By Barbara Starr
The Obama administration now works under the assumption that al Qaeda in Yemen "is coming after America every day," says a U.S. official familiar with the situation in that country. The official said there are also indications the organization is seeking recruits with specific knowledge of the United States and Western targets.
The official paints a picture of an al Qaeda organization that over the last year has grown stronger, larger, more capable and more determined to attack the United States.
The assessment of al Qaeda's growing threat underscores why Obama administration and intelligence officials, as well as members of Congress, were so angered about leaks of sensitive intelligence regarding a recent U.S.-Saudi "sting" operation in Yemen to stop a suicide bomb from making its way onto a U.S.-bound airliner. The official would not comment on the leak.
As for new plots, the official said: "We don't know what plots are in training, or how they might come after us." But he added, "We have to assume they continue to come after us." While he underscored that the Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda has not succeeded in attacking the United States, he noted that the group is using safe havens it has established in remote southeastern regions of the country for training and planning operations.
Additionally, the group has adjusted its operations and command structure in recent months, to ensure it has "redundancies" so there is no "single point of failure" that could stop the group's operations. One example cited is that there is now a more dispersed command structure with four major individuals running al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
–The so-called Emir Nasser al-Wahayshi, the Yemeni founder of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a onetime personal secretary to Osama Bin Laden.
–Said al-Shiri – a Saudi, and deputy emir who was once held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay,
–Qassem al Raymi, the operational commander.
–Top bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri.
The United States believes each of these men now has a role in planning for new attacks against the United States as well as extending al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's regional influence.
The officials laid out the Yemeni government efforts to dislodge al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from their strongholds mainly in southeastern Yemen and cautioned that any definition of the territory it "controls" is limited. Before March 2011, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula controlled territory in about three governates. Now, after taking advantage of the civil conflict in Yemen, it controls territory in about six of them. But that "control" is mainly limited to what officials call "shura and security," religious intimidation and checkpoints, rather than any form of governance or providing of services.
However, sources in Yemen say that in the town of Ja'ar in Abyan province, for example, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its ally Ansar al Shariah have set up Sharia courts and provided some basic services, declaring the area an "Islamic Emirate."
While U.S. officials believe the new Yemeni government has made some limited progress in recent weeks, Yemeni forces have been overwhelmed in some recent battles, often facing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's simultaneous offensives in different locations.
The United States believes there is a hard core of "hundreds" of fighters that surround these men, and "many hundreds more" of addtional al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters spread throughout southeastern Yemen. They are mainly operating from safe havens in remote areas where Yemeni government security forces have found it difficult to make gains.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the official also said, is making efforts to recruit Westerners because of their language skills, cultural knowledge and noncontroversial passports. "It's the people coming in that are particularly worrisome."
A senior Middle Eastern official also recently told CNN that the assessment in the region is that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now includes hundreds of fighters from Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Africa.