Could al-Qaida launch attacks on US from Yemen?

Updated: 2011-05-18 15:28


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WASHINGTON - Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)could gain a foothold in Yemen that would allow the terror group to stage a "spectacular attack" against the United States or US interests, according to a think tank report released on Tuesday.

"If the organization is seeking to attack us, it's actively seeking to attack us, and it will try to attack us this year," said Katherine Zimmerman, the study's co-author and analyst at the American Enterprise Institute at a panel discussion in Washington on Tuesday.

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Indeed, recent events in the region have benefited the organization and placed it in a strategically advantageous position.

"For the US, the most dangerous situation comes from what (Yemen-based) al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has gained from the unrest," she said, referring to the current anti-government protests that have swept the Arab world and spilled over into Yemen.

As a result, Yemeni counter-terrorism forces have moved from al-Qaida strongholds into the capital to protect key infrastructure there, a move that has increased al-Qaida's operating space.

"This allows the group (the AQAP) to train for, to plot for and to attack the US and its interests," she said.

Of note, however, is that the United States has ramped up security and taken action to prevent such a scenario from unfolding, she added.

The al-Qaida group in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of the organization founded by Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan by US forces earlier this month, has staged attacks against the United States in the past. The most notable was a foiled plot launched on Christmas Day 2009, in which an operative attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear on a flight bound for Detroit.


The report, entitled "Crisis in Yemen and US Objectives," also argued that Washington could experience backlash for any backing of current President Ali Abdullah Saleh, should the government change hands.

Yemeni protesters continue to call for his resignation in the third month of demonstrations, while Saleh urged the opposition to stop "playing with fire," media reported. Moreover, any new government would have other concerns to attend to, such as the country's tanking economy, and that could give the AQAP some breathing room.

US forces have conducted drone strikes on parts of the country in a bid to kill key members of AQAP, one of the latest being an attack that killed two suspected members of the organization but missed the intended target, radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Frederick W. Kagan, co-author of the report and one of the architects of the US surge in Iraq, said the current US approach is unlikely to meet much success.

"If we are going to have a successful military approach to the AQAP problem, it's going to have to go beyond drones," he said.

The report argued that drone strikes against terror suspects have been used in the embattled country with only limited success and have not prevented al-Qaida from operating.

Still, the deployment of large numbers of US ground troops would be unwise, as well as counterproductive and resulting in undesirable consequences, he added.


The United States has been criticized for lacking a strategy for Yemen. Recently, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that Washington had no plans on the table for a Yemen without Saleh.

Former US Ambassador to Yemen Edmund J. Hull argued that more of a strategy exists now than a few years back. The real challenge, however, is implementation.

"Washington often thinks once it has articulated the problem and articulated a strategy, somehow the job is done," he said.

"Well guess what? The real slips, the failures more often occur when you try to implement that strategy. And you don't even know if it's a useful strategy until you've tried to implement it seriously," he said.

He believes the United States so far has a workable approach for Yemen and that 300 million US dollars in US aid - criticized by some as not enough - is sufficient funding for now.

As for the current US goals in the battered country, foremost is to defeat al-Qaida and deny the group or its splinter organizations any safe haven, as well as to disrupt cooperation between it and other radical groups, especially al Shabaab in Somalia, the report said.

The secondary goal is to prevent regional instability, manage refugee outflows and the development of any humanitarian crisis and secure a free passage in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the report said.


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