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Middle east

Remote, lawless and a fertile ground for terror

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2010-01-04

The botched Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound airplane has put the spotlight on Yemen, from where the group 'Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula' (AQAP) is believed to have trained the Nigerian would-be bomber Umar Abdulmutallab.

Following the botched Christmas Day attack on a US airplane bound for Detroit, Yemen is now firmly under the international spotlight. Yemen has reportedly contains al Qaeda training camps and terrorist bases with the capability of launching attacks across the world.

Shortly after he was detained, Umar Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian would-be bomber, told US investigators he had spent time training with al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

The group known as ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP), an affiliate of the global terrrorist network, appeared to corroborate that claim on Dec. 28, when it released a statement on of Abdulmutallab dealing a “huge blow” to the US.

An impoverished, largely lawless nation strategically important due to its location on the vital trading route linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, Yemen is increasingly being viewed as a weak link in the global fight against terrorism.

According to a US media report, the US and Yemenis authorities are now reviewing possible al Qaeda targets within the country for a retaliatory strike. Citing unnamed US officials, CNN reported that US cruise missiles or unmanned drones could target al Qaeda bases with the Yemeni Government’s consent.

'Tomorrow’s war'?

On Dec. 27, US Senator Joe Lieberman, head of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, warned that Yemen could become the next US theatre of war unless Washington takes preventive measures there to dismantle the terrorist networks.

“Somebody in our government said to me in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, that Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face,” Lieberman told Fox News.

It’s not the first time senior US politicians have pointed the finger at Yemen, it being the birthplace of Osama bin Laden’s father.

“Yemen has been the subject of US scrutiny since the bombing of warship USS Cole in October 2000,” said François Burgat, a leading expert on Yemen and author of “Islamism under Al-Qaeda’s leadership” to FRANCE24.

Fertile al Qaeda ground

After the 9/11 attacks, Washington called on Sanaa to destroy the jihadists’ infrastructure, but Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh did not succeed in stamping out al Qaeda in his conflict-ridden nation.

According to Burgat, US pressure actually proved counter-productive as the Saleh regime didn’t have the material means to deal with the country’s systemic internal turmoil.


“Post 9/11, security measures in Yemen initially worked, but ultimately ended up radicalising more people,” said Burgat.

Despite being in power for more than 30 years, Saleh’s authority is undermined by a raging rebellion in the north, secessionist movements in the south, endemic poverty, and powerful tribal allegiances. With its weak central government and rugged mountainous terrain, Yemen provides a fertile ground for al Qaeda and it has taken root and flourished.

The jihadists’ new operational base

In February 2006, 23 jihadist figures, including the perpetrators of the USS Cole attack, staged a prison break from the high-security Sana detention centre. The escapees were led by Nasser al-Wahayshi, Osama bin Laden’s former secretary, who promptly revived al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch.


The group embarked on a string of bloody attacks in Yemen, targeting foreign tourist groups between July 2007 and January 2008, launching rockets at a residential compound inhabited by US oil experts in April 2008, and leading a brazen attack on the US embassy in Sana in September 2008.

Wahayshi’s Yemeni cell ended up merging with al Qaeda’s Saudi branch in January 2009, giving birth to AQAP with the stated aim of turning Yemen into its new operational base in the Gulf. But the foiled bomb attack on Christmas Day on Northwest flight 253 has showed the organisation’s willingness to strike outside Yemeni borders.

Date created : 2009-12-30


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