“Brother Mujahid Umar al-Farouk is a hero who destroyed the legend of American intelligence.”
By that sentence al-Qaida’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula (mainly in Yemen) took responsibility for the recent terrorist attempt to blow up the Northwestern flight over Detroit on Christmas day. The statement declared war on all western diplomats in the region, called for launching a full-scale war against the “crusaders,” and stated that the failed attempt was a response to the US-sponsored attacks on al-Qaida’s camps in Yemen earlier this month.
The rhetoric is not new, nor is the elusiveness of al-Qaida. The organization and its branches suffered severe losses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, its central command is under intense pressures in Pakistan. But then it reemerges like a phoenix in Yemen to plot an international attack in Detroit. This “phoenix phenomenon” can also be observed in West Africa (the home region of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab) and East Africa (where the Shabab movement declared allegiance to al-Qaida-Central). In the Middle East, however, al-Qaida’s center of gravity has shifted from Iraq to Yemen.
Since al-Qaida’s birth in the late 1980s, Yemen has been always under the organization’s radar. In addition to Bin Laden’s blood ties to Hadhramaut in Central Yemen, the conservative social setting, the rugged geographical terrain, the traditionally weak central authority, and the dominance of the tribal system over the state system are all factors that al-Qaida manipulated and capitalized upon.
Over the past twenty years, Al-Qaida’s life in Yemen can be divided into three phases:
• The first was between 1990 and 1994 when Bin Laden and his Yemeni associates tried to unite other Islamist factions to topple the regime and declare an Islamist state. That attempt failed. Instead, elements of al-Qaida and their supporters fought in the 1994 Yemeni civil war on the side of the incumbent president, Ali Abdullah Salih.
• The second phase is between 1995 and 2006. That phase was characterized with a distinct organizational structure for al-Qaida and a constant confrontation with the Yemeni regime. By 2006, al-Qaida was severely weakened due to security strikes, international coordination, and a de-radicalization program that was partly successful.
• In 2006, a third phase for al-Qaida in Yemen started with a successful escape attempt from the Political Security Prison in Sanaa by al-Qaida’s commanders. The escape was just the tip of the iceberg. The imprisoned leaders were able to reorganize the group and communicate with Iraq and Afghan Yemeni veterans. Following reorganization, al-Qaida was able to strike multiple targets including military, state security, and foreign ones. The more recent activity of the group was giving life to the defunct “al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,” an organization that was already burned-dead by the Saudi security services.
Al-Qaida has declared that it reestablished a regional, organizational leadership in Yemen. Last January, the leader was declared to be Abu Basir Nasr al-Wahishy from Abyan Province in the south. Earlier this month, al-Qaida held a public rally in Abyan, in the same site of the US-backed air raid; there its commanders declared that they will take revenge, just a few days before the Detroit terrorist plot unfolds.