WASHINGTON - The attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian allegedly associated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has propelled long-neglected Yemen into the media spotlight here.
The attempt, which was foiled by alert passengers who subdued the alleged bomber, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as he tried to set off explosives, could result in increased U.S. military and economic aid for the beleaguered regime headed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as some influential think tanks here have urged.
It could also renew a simmering debate over whether "Al Qaeda Central" located along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border constitutes "the epicentre of violent extremism", as President Barack Obama contended when he announced his plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan earlier this month, or whether loosely affiliated groups and individuals now pose the greater threat to U.S. security.
"This attempted attack does not appear to have any connection to Afghanistan," Paul Pillar, the former top Near and South Asia analyst for the U.S. intelligence community who argued against the escalation of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, told Newsweek Monday.
"The incident is a reminder that countering such terrorism is not a matter of controlling particular pieces of foreign real estate but instead of less visible work by intelligence and law enforcement resources," he said.
In a brief appearance Monday to announce stepped-up security measures and reassure travellers of the safety of flying on commercial aircraft, Obama stressed that Washington was determined to punish those who aided Abdulmutallab, although he did not mention AQAP explicitly.
"We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable," he said in Hawaii where he is vacationing with his family.
"We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland," he added.
In a message that appeared on a number of radical Islamist websites Monday, AQAP claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing, which took place as the Northwest Airlines flight descended into Detroit from Amsterdam where it originated. Abdulmutallab had flown to Amsterdam from Lagos Dec. 24.
According to various reports, Abdulmutallab has told interrogators here that he had received training and explosives from AQAP in Yemen, a link that investigators are currently trying to confirm.
Some officials noted that the explosive used by the alleged bomber, PETN, was the same as that used last August by another AQAP militant in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the director of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism programme.
Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker who had reportedly warned U.S. and Nigerian officials about his son's apparent radicalisation since graduating from University College in London, said Abdulmutallab travelled to Yemen, his mother's ancestral home, earlier this fall before breaking off all contact with the family last month.
In its Internet message, AQAP said the attempted bombing was carried out in retaliation for raids by Yemeni security against suspected AQAP hideouts in three cities in which the government claimed 34 militants, including senior commanders, were killed and 17 others arrested.
One unnamed U.S. official told reporters here that the raids were backed by U.S.-supplied "intelligence and firepower". Yemeni officials have subsequently denied reports that U.S. cruise missiles or predator drones took part in the raids.
In a eulogy to those killed in the raids, one AQAP member called for retaliation against "America and its agents", according to a translation by Virginia-based IntelCenter. "We are carrying a bomb to hit the enemies of God," he said.
One week later, Yemeni warplanes bombed a compound in the southern province of Shabwa, where the government said senior AQAP officials were meeting.
It claimed that more than 30 militants were killed in the strike, including the group's leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi and his top deputy. Also reportedly killed was Anwar al Aulaqi, a U.S.-born Yemeni cleric with whom the U.S. Army major accused of gunning down 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, last month had been in email contact. Aulaqi's family, however, has denied that he was present at the time.
Another 29 AQAP members were arrested Monday, according to the government, which said they had plotted to attack several government targets and the British Embassy in Yemen's capital, Sana'a.
According to a New York Times report Monday, Washington, which has long been concerned that Yemen could become a "failed state", has been providing increasing amounts of mostly covert military and intelligence assistance to the country. This includes top field operatives from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Special Operations Forces (SOF) commandos who have begun training Yemeni security forces in counterterrorism tactics, the newspaper said.
It plans to double such aid - to more than 70 million dollars over the next 18 months, according to the report, which noted that separate secret visits to Yemen in late summer by the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, and Obama's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, marked a "pivotal point" in gaining Pres. Saleh's agreement to make AQAP the government's top priority.
The central government faces a growing secessionist movement in the south and, more important, a major insurgency in the north, home to members of the Zaydi Shia sect that make up about a third of the country's 23 million people. Both challenges have, at least until recently, been considered by the government a greater threat than AQAP.
In a report released last month, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) warned that Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, "rests today on a knife's edge" and called on Washington to significantly increase both military and development assistance as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy to ensure the state's survival and repel the growing AQAP threat.
Washington is planning to provide nearly 40 million dollars in economic aid to the government in 2010, up from 24 million dollars this year.
CNAS, a think tank from which the Obama administration has recruited heavily, also called for the U.S. to seek a political settlement to the northern "Houthi" rebellion so that "the government [could] take more seriously the threat posed by transnational terrorists present on Yemeni soil."
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.