The smart, resourceful, and ambitious al Qaeda franchise operating in the fragile state of Yemen is the greatest terrorist threat to the United States, a panel of experts warned lawmakers this morning.
The panel of experts addressing the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence confirmed National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter’s recent description of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as "probably the most significant threat to the U.S. homeland."
Over the last two years, AQAP has been linked to the Fort Hood rampage that killed 13 people, primarily U.S. soldiers, and the failed attacks of the underwear bomb plot of Christmas 2009 and the printer bomb plot of October 2010, both targeting the aviation sector.
“2011 holds great promise for AQAP,” said Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, describing the advantageous climate the terrorist organization operates in as the beleaguered government of President President Ali Abdullah Saleh fights three major challenges to its rule.
Politically, the Yemeni government is seen as corrupt and unresponsive to its population’s desire for a better life. The Saleh regime is currently battling a Shia rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south as the convulsions spreading throughout the Middle East have created a protest movement calling for the end of Saleh’s 32-year reign.
The ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world with seemingly intractable problems including a poverty rate of approximately 40 percent, massive unemployment, a bulging youth population, and oil and water shortages. Some analysts predict that the country will run out of oil within ten years, a resource that accounts for a third of the economy, and that Sanaa will be the first capital city in history to run out of water, according to The Council on Foreign Relations.
Christopher Boucek, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Saleh’s government “incredibly preoccupied” while Barfi described the rebellion in the north as Saleh’s primary concern.
While the United States and the Saleh regime have partnered to fight AQAP, Saleh is much more concerned with fighting challenges to his rule than he is with the terrorist organization operating in the country’s ungoverned spaces.
The surrounding instability and lack of police or military force projection makes Yemen a perfect place for AQAP to hide out and plan attacks, both Boucek and Barif said.
What makes AQAP more dangerous than core al Qaeda leadership, according to Dr. Jarret Brachman, the managing director of Cronus Global and a former research director at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, is its ability to market its message to alienated Muslims in the West using social media and Web publishing.