BRITAIN – The axis of terror got bigger yesterday. After the presence of explosives in two packages bound for the US was confirmed – and a suspected 24 more discovered – their place of origin entered the big league as a crucible of deadly and disruptive terrorism. As Magnus Ranstorp, one of the worldis leading experts on the issue, told The Independent on Sunday: “Yemen has become the new Afghanistan.”
And, to go with this status, there comes to prominence one Yemeni who – in the eyes of America and some leading security specialists – is on a par with Osama bin Laden: Anwar al-Awlaki. Linked to three of the 9/11 bombers, the Fort Hood shootings, last Christmasis failed iunderpantsi bomber and the Times Square bombing, he has been described by a US representative as “No 1 terrorist”, and yesterday by Sajjan M Gohel, director for international security for the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, as “the most dangerous ideologue in the world”. This American Islamist preacher of Yemeni ancestry is the kingpin in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the strongly suspected origin of the two package bombs found in the past two days. In April, Washington authorised the CIA to kill or capture Awlaki, the first such order ever to apply to a US citizen.
Disturbingly, there also came news that, while Yemen may be the most desolate and poorest part of the Middle East – a place, until last year, more associated with tribal warfare than global menace – the devices intercepted in Dubai and Britain were viable bombs, and of a technical complexity not hitherto seen. Dr Sally Leivesley, a former Home Office security adviser, said: “In terms of creating a significant bomb, in terms of an attack on the West, this is pretty sophisticated.”
The world’s security and intelligence services had a lot to absorb yesterday. As well as the packages, their contents, and the possibility of dozens more devices, and the role of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in dispatching them, was the realisation that the latest discoveries represent a new strategy for supporters of Osama bin Laden. Here is the use of cargo as well as passenger planes, and a blow aimed at the worldwide daily commerce in goods, especially via the internet, upon which so much of Western economies now depends.
The terrorists were careful to ensure that the two confirmed bombs were sent via both UPS and FedEx, the most popular carriers. The packages – both addressed to two places of Jewish worship in Chicago – were intercepted on Friday, the result not of security checks but of intelligence received from Saudi Arabia, Britain and the United Arab Emirates. The parcel intercepted in Dubai contained a bomb hidden in a printer, police said.
The device found in Britain was taken off a cargo plane at East Midlands airport. It was confirmed yesterday as a “viable” bomb. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, speaking after chairing a meeting of the Government’s Cobra crisis committee, said: “The target may have been an aircraft and, had it detonated, the aircraft could have been brought down.” Dr Leivesley said yesterday: “It looks like the intention was remote control, the type found on a mobile phone. It’s a very sophisticated system with the components and electronics.” Britain has now banned the movement of all unaccompanied air freight originating from Yemen, while the US is now back-checking packages.
Officials in Dubai and the US said the parcel bombs had the hallmarks of al-Qaida, and appeared to include the same explosives used in a failed attempt – by the so-called “underpants bomber” – to blow up a US passenger jet on Christmas Day last year. Last night, Yemeni security services said they had arrested a women suspected of sending the parcels. This latest Yemeni plot further heightened security concerns about the unstable Arab state, seen by the West as the home of al-Qaida’s most inventive and audacious affiliate, and one in which former Guantanamo detainees play a prominent part.
Al-Qaida goes back a long way in Yemen. It is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home, and one of the group’s first attacks took place there in 1998, when 16 tourists were kidnapped. Its strength, and fortunes, fluctuated, and then, in January 2009, a former bin Laden aide, Nasser Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi, announced the forging of strands in Yemen and Saudi Arabia into “al-Qaida of Jihad Organisation in the Arabian Peninsula”.
It soon began to earn a reputation as the most aggressive arm of al-Qaida’s globally scattered hubs of sympathisers and affiliate groups. In August 2009 came the attempted assassination of Saudi Arabia’s security chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Then, a few months later, the attempt to down an airliner over Detroit by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, which failed when the device in his underpants failed to detonate. Abdulmutallab had visited Yemen and had been in contact with militants there. In April this year, an al-Qaida suicide bomber almost succeeded in assassinating Tim Torlot, Britain’s ambassador to Yemen. And earlier this month, terrorists targeted Fiona Gibb, the deputy chief of the UK embassy in the capital, Sanaia.
Dr Ranstorp, research director at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College, said yesterday: “One of the significant issues we’re seeing is the number of foreign fighters going to Yemen. The German authorities are very worried. At least 70 Germans are thought to be in training camps, with about 200 travelling there in the last two years.” Whitehall sources say about 30 Britons are believed to be training there.
The group is also an energetic producer of al-Qaida propaganda and the publisher of an ambitious English-language magazine, Inspire. This, with its professional, teen-magazine-style presentation, carries such articles as how to “make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”. The US, particularly, regards it as a worryingly effective recruiter of homegrown militants. Among the brains behind it is al-Awlaki, 39, holder of an engineering degree, a criminal record for soliciting prostitutes and, say US officials, a man who holds sway over young men ripe for radicalisation.
Putting him at the top of a wanted list is one thing; finding him quite another. The governor of Shabwa province, where al-Awlaki is believed to be hiding in the mountains, told the Associated Press he hasn’t been sighted in two months and cast doubt whether he was still in Shabwa.
With US help, the Yemeni government has stepped up a military operation against al-Qaida sympathisers based in remote areas of the country. About 50 elite US military experts are in the country to train Yemeni counter-terrorism forces – a number that has doubled over the past year. Washington is funnelling some $150m in military assistance to Yemen this year for helicopters, planes and other equipment, along with a similar amount for humanitarian and development aid. US officials say they want to combine the counter-terrorism effort with programmes designed to alleviate poverty, illiteracy and rapid population growth – ominous words which have proved catastrophically hollow in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the worry is that Western interference could generate more resentment and increase support for al-Qaida. Yemen is the poorest country of the Arab nations, with dwindling oil reserves and weak central government. If the country does collapse, the fear will be that terrorist networks will be able to act with impunity. Apart from battling against a resurgent al-Qaida wing, Yemen is also struggling to contain simmering unrest from a growing secessionist movement in the south. A six-year conflict with northern rebels came to an end only earlier this year, having displaced more than 350,000 people. The government is helpless in the face of grinding poverty and rampant unemployment, with more than 40 per cent of Yemenis living on less than $2 a day.
It all has a sickeningly familiar ring – the propagation of terror, the poverty, militancy and lawlessness that have sucked the West into Afghanistan and keep their forces there in a doomed and bloody enterprise.