We are still learning the details of the terrorist plot to send explosives into the U.S. from Yemen via cargo plane, so it is too early to make a definitive assessment. However, we have enough information to make some preliminary observations and ask some fundamental questions.
First, it is a safe bet that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, is responsible. While President Obama and his advisors were initially hesitant to pin blame on AQAP as they (understandably) waited for more information, U.S. counterterrorism officials are now telling the press that AQAP is probably the culprit.
This is hardly surprising. AQAP has taken the lead in a number of terrorist plots against the U.S. Homeland since it was founded in early 2009. Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 was orchestrated by the group. Abdulmutallab was recruited by AQAP and trained in its Yemeni terrorist camps. Top AQAP cleric Anwar al Awlaki met with Abdulmutallab to give the operation his blessing. According to the Obama administration, Awlaki was also personally involved in the operational planning.
Second, this latest foiled attack (assuming it has been completely foiled) provides another opportunity for President Obama and his advisors to learn a valuable lesson: Do not rely exclusively on the terrorists’ propaganda when assessing their motives.
For example, we’ve heard from the president and his advisors on multiple occasions that American policies – especially Guantanamo – are driving terrorist recruitment. The president himself has argued that Guantanamo “was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” This is wrong and relies on a gross misreading of AQAP’s propaganda.
Guantanamo’s existence is not the driving force behind AQAP’s terror. The terrorists’ jihadist ideology, which the Obama administration spends much of its time ignoring, is what’s responsible.
And if you were to accept at face value AQAP’s propaganda over the past year, you would think that Obama’s policies are the reason for the group’s terror. Here is what Anwar al Awlaki had to say in the first edition of AQAP’s Inspire magazine:
If George W. Bush is remembered by getting America stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s looking like Obama wants to be remembered as the president who got America stuck in Yemen. Obama has already started his war on Yemen by the aerial bombings of Abyan and Shabwa. By doing that, he has waged a publicity campaign for the mujāhidīn in Yemen, and within days accomplished for them the work of years. As the popularity of the mujāhidīn in Yemen skyrocketed, the popularity of Obama in American [sic] plummeted.
If AQAP releases a statement saying that its latest bombs were payback for America’s clandestine war in Yemen, is President Obama going to argue that we need to stop fighting al Qaeda there? Is he going to blame his own policies? Of course he will not. In fact, in Obama's initial comments on this plot he said America will "strengthen" its relationship with the government of Yemen. AQAP routinely denounces Yemeni-American relations in its propaganda.
Third, while Guantanamo is not the ultimate cause of this latest plot, there may be a Gitmo connection. Many of the most senior positions within AQAP are held by former Gitmo detainees who are originally from Saudi Arabia.
Said al Shihri, a Gitmo alum, is the organization’s deputy leader. Ibrahim Rubaish, who was also detained at Gitmo, is AQAP’s mufti – or chief theologian. Othman al Ghamdi is AQAP’s military commander. At least several other former Gitmo detainees have joined AQAP as well.
Were any of these former Gitmo detainees responsible for, or involved in, this latest plot? We don’t know. It is likely that Said al Shihri, in particular, would have foreknowledge of the attack given his stature within the organization.
Fourth, the terrorists showed a bit of innovation in this latest plot – aerially delivered improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The two explosives-laden packages were reportedly destined for a Jewish synagogue and community center in Chicago. At least one of the two was set to be detonated using a cell phone. It is not clear if they were intended to explode while the airplanes were mid-flight or once they arrived in Chicago. Either way, these bombs were supposed to rely on technology rather than suicide bombers.
From AQAP’s perspective, this makes sense. The chief failure of the Christmas Day plot was a human one. Abdulmutallab bungled his opportunity to detonate his underwear bomb and alert passengers made sure he couldn’t keep trying.
IEDs are commonly used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. Even if the specific design is different in this instance, the concept is the same. Terrorists implant the device and then detonate it via cell phone or some other mechanism from afar. What is different here is that the terrorists tried to mail the IEDs from Yemen to the heart of the U.S.
Much of AQAP’s propaganda is designed to recruit new terrorists in the West such as Abdulmutallab and Major Nidal Malik Hassan (who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood in November 2009). But here, the terrorists did not try to rely on an individual terrorist operating in the West to launch an attack.
Finally, Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed this morning that the Saudis, who have been an uneven partner in the fight against al Qaeda, provided the intelligence that allowed authorities to locate and diffuse the two bombs. There are good reasons why the Saudis would have their fingers on the pulse of AQAP. The organization has repeatedly targeted the Saudi royals. And most of the former Gitmo detainees who have joined AQAP graduated from Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program for jihadists.
Said al Shihri, who has mocked the Saudi rehabilitation program in public statements, has called for Saudi security officials and servicemen to turn on the Saudi government. And AQAP has launched several attempts to assassinate top Saudi officials. One of the attempts involved Said al Shihri’s brother-in-law, Yousef al Shihri.
Yousef was also once held at Guantanamo, transferred to Saudi Arabia, and then enrolled in the rehabilitation program. Yousef was killed in a shootout with Saudi security forces on October 13, 2009. He was dressed as a woman and wearing a suicide explosives belt at the time. Yousef and his accomplice wanted to kill Prince Muhammad Bin Naif Bin Abdul Aziz, who is the Saudi deputy interior minister and oversees the Kingdom’s counterterrorism efforts.
Thus, Prince Abdul Aziz and some of his extended family members have a vested interest in tracking AQAP’s terrorist designs closely. In this case, it was to America’s benefit.
But there is a boomerang effect here. What drives AQAP’s terror is not Guantanamo, or President Obama’s policies in Yemen. The Saudis who lead AQAP were indoctrinated in jihadist ideology by Saudi clerics.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.