American counterterrorism officials recently warned that al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is trying to produce the lethal poison ricin to be packed around small bombs for use in attacks against the U.S. homeland.[1] This latest development is further evidence of AQAP’s growing threat to the United States. The group has demonstrated remarkable resiliency and adaptability in its history, surviving several leadership changes and major crackdowns in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its success in the face of adversity is a model for other al-Qa`ida units now threatened. In particular, with al-Qa`ida’s core in Pakistan under severe pressure due to Usama bin Ladin’s death in May 2011, AQAP provides insights into the jihad’s capacity to rally back from defeat.

AQAP has done far more than just survive. In the last two years, it has emerged as a potent al-Qa`ida threat to the U.S. homeland, staging two attacks on American cities and inspiring other attacks by American Muslims, including U.S. Army soldiers attracted to AQAP’s message.[2] AQAP has developed a new strategy for attacking the United States which emphasizes small and simple operations designed to undermine the economy and “hemorrhage” a country in the midst of a severe economic crisis. AQAP has also led the jihadist movement in adapting the traditional al-Qa`ida narrative and ideology to the new paradigm of the “Arab Spring.” AQAP embraced the revolutionary “tsunami” both in name and action. It articulated a new narrative for al-Qa`ida that seizes on the Arab Spring and puts it into a jihadist context. In Yemen, the terrorist group has exploited the chaos and confusion around the revolution against President Ali Abdullah Salih to expand its room for maneuver and safe havens.

AQAP is an ambitious organization that has by its own statements “great expectations” for the future. The United States will need a focused but comprehensive policy and significant assistance from Saudi Arabia to deal with AQAP’s operatives.

This article highlights al-Qa`ida’s resiliency in the Arabian Peninsula, examines its strategy of defeating the United States and its allies through “a thousand cuts,” and identifies the group’s local and regional ambitions.

Resiliency: Bouncing Back
Al-Qa`ida has long been active in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Usama bin Ladin. One of its earliest major terrorist attacks was conducted in Aden in 2000 when an al-Qa`ida cell nearly sank the USS Cole. It has also been active in Saudi Arabia since the late 1990s when it tried to attack the U.S. Consulate in Jidda during U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s visit in 1998.[3] The head of al-Qa`ida in Yemen, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2002, which disrupted the group’s activities for several years. Al-Qa`ida in Saudi Arabia was ordered by Bin Ladin to rise up against the House of Saud in 2003, and for the next two years it waged a bloody campaign across the kingdom to topple the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi authorities fought back with clever and resourceful counterattacks that devastated al-Qa`ida’s infrastructure in the country.

In January 2009, the al-Qa`ida franchises in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged after the Saudi branch had been effectively repressed by Saudi authorities. Bin Ladin and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri helped orchestrate the merger. A Yemeni with close ties to Bin Ladin, Nasir al-Wihayshi, was chosen to lead the group with a Saudi deputy, Said al-Shihri. Both had been in prison already for their al-Qa`ida beliefs. Al-Wihayshi had escaped from a Sana`a jail in February 2006, while al-Shihri had been released from Guantanamo to Saudi custody in December 2007. Together they rebuilt the shattered remnants back into a deadly force relatively quickly. The group’s ability to recover from adversity demonstrates that al-Qa`ida franchises are adept at bouncing back when they have smart leadership like al-Wihayshi and al-Shihri.[4]

They were joined by others including a skilled bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. Al-Asiri, who is probably around 29-years-old, is the Saudi master bombmaker for AQAP. He constructed the bomb that his brother Abdullah used in a failed suicide assassination attempt against Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, in August 2009. He built the bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, used in his attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 as it was descending over southern Ontario to Detroit. He also built the parcel bombs that AQAP dispatched to Chicago on the eve of the U.S. elections in October 2010, trying to blow up UPS and FedEx planes that were instead found in Dubai and England due to a tip from Saudi intelligence. AQAP claims a similar parcel bomb was responsible for blowing up a UPS delivery aircraft in Abu Dhabi on September 3, 2010.

AQAP also has an American face, the New Mexico-born and Colorado-educated Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-`Awlaqi. Some suggest that al-`Awlaqi is the head of the group’s foreign operations. He is also one of the movers behind AQAP’s innovative English-language web journal, Inspire, which serves as the group’s principle propaganda outlet to the West. It is produced by AQAP’s al-Malahim production studio.[5]

Strategy of a Thousand Cuts
AQAP devoted the third issue of Inspire to the parcel bomb plot and to outlining its strategy for defeating the United States. It expanded beyond traditional al-Qa`ida strategic thinking. AQAP claims it now has a team of crafty bombmakers producing its wares that can supposedly get through the most sophisticated airport surveillance equipment in the world. It says its goal is to “hemorrhage” the U.S. economy by conducting waves of small-scale attacks similar to the parcel bombs (a “thousand cuts”) and the Christmas Day plot that force added security countermeasures. The cover proudly proclaimed that the parcel plot cost just $4,200 to execute. The Detroit operation has already produced expensive new security measures at airports from Amsterdam to Auckland.

These new attacks are notable for their relatively small footprint. They are harder to defeat because they are less complex. Unlike the 9/11 plot or the 2006 failed attempt to blow up 10 airliners en route from London to North America, these efforts are conducted by a small number of people. Only a few participated in the planning and execution, and the plots went from concept to action in a few months. Abdulmutallab, for example, was recruited and trained for his mission in Shabwa Province only a few weeks before his attack.[6]

The recent intelligence on AQAP’s attempts to acquire ricin fit within this strategy. According to U.S. officials cited in the New York Times, “evidence points to efforts to secretly concoct batches of the [ricin] poison, pack them around small explosives, and then try to explode them in contained spaces, like a shopping mall, an airport or a subway station.”[7]

As part of this strategy, AQAP is using its propaganda message to inspire American Muslims to act on their own to attack targets on U.S. territory. Al-`Awlaqi says he encouraged Major Nidal Malik Hasan to conduct his carnage at Fort Hood in Texas on November 5, 2009, an attack that killed 13 people. More recently, another U.S. soldier of Palestinian descent, Naser Abdo, tried to carry out an attack at the same base.[8] The police found a copy of an article from Inspire in his possession.[9]

Together with what al-Qa`ida calls the “bleeding wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps another one some day in Yemen, these smaller attacks are designed to wear the United States down through attrition just as they believe the mujahidin war in Afghanistan in the 1980s bled the Soviet Union until it collapsed. The terrorists said they had such great hopes for the parcel bomb plot in October 2010 that they included a copy of the novel Great Expectations in the mailing envelope concealing the bombs. Apparently, the Dickens masterpiece is a favorite of al-`Awlaqi.

Great Expectations: Local and Regional
Although AQAP is plotting against the U.S. homeland, it does not want to replace the al-Qa`ida core in Pakistan as the leader of the global jihad. AQAP leader Nasir al-Wihayshi publicly proclaimed his group’s allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri as the new amir of al-Qa`ida in July 2011. The most recent edition of Inspire was dedicated to Bin Ladin’s memory and martyrdom, and it clearly endorses al-Zawahiri as the leader of global jihad, saying “now Shaykh Ayman carries the banner” of jihad. Yet AQAP does aspire to play a much larger role in Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab world as a whole.

In Yemen, it has taken advantage of the uprising against the Salih regime to expand significantly its area of operations, especially in the southern provinces. In Abyan, Hadramawt, Marib, Shabwa and other remote provinces it is more active than ever before. In Abyan’s capital, Zinjibar, under the banner of Ansar al-Shari`a (Followers of Islamic Law), it has taken over significant parts of the city.[10] The extent of al-Qa`ida’s gains in Yemen in the last few months is unclear. It says in Inspire that “the country is falling apart and our brothers are busy picking up the pieces, its like walking into an orchard of ripe fruit that is falling off the branches and all you have to do is walk through with a basket over your head.”[11]

Much of this is true. Yemen has splintered between Salih loyalists led by his son, Ahmed—who commands the Republican Guard—the democracy movement, defecting army commanders, tribal warlords, southern secessionists and Islamic groups of many different varieties. The Salih forces, however, like to label all opposition as al-Qa`ida, the reformers accuse the government of allowing al-Qa`ida to advance to scare the West and the Saudis, and AQAP has every reason to exaggerate its own successes. As a result, it is difficult to determine the extent to which AQAP has actually expanded its power base, and caution should be used in assessing claims of its victory or defeat in any particular location. What is clear is that Yemen is increasingly chaotic and the central government, always weak outside the urban areas, is becoming weaker still and is preoccupied with the struggle for power. Al-Qa`ida is not a player in the future of Sana`a. It will not take over the country as a whole. Yet with a weak central government, al-Qa`ida will face reduced counterterrorism pressure from the Yemeni authorities.

Yemen, of course, suffers from numerous other challenges that divert attention from AQAP. It is running out of both oil and water, it has a huge unemployment and underemployment crisis, the median age of its rapidly growing population is 19, and much of the population is addicted to qat, undermining work habits and productivity. Whatever regime replaces Salih will have to focus on these fundamental challenges, leaving AQAP with space and time to export terrorism.

A strengthened AQAP in Yemen is certain to try to put more pressure on Saudi Arabia and to strike Saudi targets. AQAP’s military chief Qasim al-Raymi warned the Saudi leadership in July 2011 that they are still regarded as “apostates.”[12] Al-Raymi specifically put Saudi King Abdallah, Crown Prince Sultan, Interior Minister Prince Nayif and his son, Muhammad bin Nayif, on the target list.[13]

The group also has ambitions to expand its cooperation with the al-Shabab movement across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. Al-Shihri has spoken in grandiose terms about the two movements some day being capable of blockading the Bab al-Mandab Strait to prevent oil traffic from moving through the strategic choke point at the end of the Red Sea. It is more realistic to anticipate the two groups cooperating in attacking individual tankers. Al-Qa`ida did attack a French tanker, the MV Limburg, in October 2002, causing spillage of 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf.

Perhaps AQAP’s most important accomplishment, however, has been in the ideological arena. Al-Qa`ida was caught off guard by the revolutions that started in Tunisia and Egypt in the winter of 2010-2011 (albeit so was the rest of the world). The early responses from al-Zawahiri and the al-Qa`ida core in Pakistan were hesitant and often incoherent. The popular mass demonstrations did not have an Islamic message at their core in the early days and did not embrace jihad. No one in Tunis or Cairo was calling for Usama bin Ladin to lead the revolution. Al-Qa`ida looked out of date and irrelevant.

AQAP has helped fill the propaganda vacuum. It called the revolutions a “tsunami” of change, and while candidly admitting al-Qa`ida was not leading them, embraced the tsunami as good for jihad and good for al-Qa`ida. The downfall of traditional al-Qa`ida enemies such as Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, Mu`ammar Qadhafi and Ali Abdullah Salih is a positive development for the global jihad. Anwar al-`Awlaqi was particularly articulate and clear in arguing that these changes would open doors for al-Qa`ida to exploit in the future and should be seen as the result of al-Qa`ida’s years of struggle against the “apostates.”[14] Al-Zawahiri has since reiterated many of the same points.

AQAP is probably correct. The Arab Spring was not created by al-Qa`ida, and the vast majority of Arabs are not seeking al-Qa`ida’s help in removing their dictators. Yet the winter of peaceful change has given way to violence from Tripoli to Hama to Aden. In this more complex and chaotic world, al-Qa`ida will have opportunities to thrive and develop. As the region becomes more convulsed with change, AQAP will serve as a role model for other al-Qa`ida franchises to copy due to its resiliency and adaptability.

AQAP is a complex challenge and threat to the United States. Covert action and intelligence operations have a role to play in disrupting AQAP, but they will need to be part of a much larger strategy that helps to rebuild the Yemeni state, address its daunting socioeconomic challenges, and attacks the ideology of the jihadists. Drones alone are not enough, as former U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull has rightly noted.[15]

Given the serious economic crisis in the United States and the magnitude of Yemen’s problems, only its neighbor Saudi Arabia has the resources to fully address the challenge. For decades, American and Saudi officials have tried to work together to help Yemen. Today, however, their challenge is greater than ever before.

Bruce Riedel is a Senior Fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University. He has advised four U.S. presidents on Afghanistan and was asked by President Barack Obama in January 2009 to chair an interagency strategic review of American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was completed in March 2009. He is the author of The Search for Al Qaeda: its Leadership, Ideology and Future. His latest book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of Global Jihad, was published in early 2011.

[1] Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S. Officials Fear,” New York Times, August 12, 2011. As stated by the New York Times, “For more than a year, according to classified intelligence reports, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has been making efforts to acquire large quantities of castor beans, which are required to produce ricin, a white, powdery toxin that is so deadly that just a speck can kill if it is inhaled or reaches the bloodstream.”

[2] For example, U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan and Private First Class Naser Abdo.

[3] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 114. Hegghammer’s book is the best study to date on al-Qa`ida’s Saudi roots and development.

[4] For a number of articles on the development and leadership of AQAP, see Ramzy Mardini ed., The Battle for Yemen: Al-Qaeda and the Struggle for Stability (Washington, D.C.: The Jamestown Foundation, 2010). On the merger, see Michael W.S. Ryan, “Al-Qaeda’s Purpose in Yemen Described in Works of Jihad Strategists,” Terrorism Monitor 8:4 (2010).

[5] Inspire magazine’s issues can be found on a number of websites, including Flashpoint Partners.

[6] Adam Nossiter, “Lonely Trek to Radicalism for Terror Suspect,” New York Times, January 16, 2010.

[7] Schmitt and Shanker.

[8] “U.S. Soldier Indicted in Texas Bomb Plot,” Agence France-Presse, August 9, 2011.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hakim Almasmari, “Al Qaeda Seizes Town in Southern Yemen, Residents Say,” CNN, August 18, 2011.

[11] Inspire, Summer 1432, 2011, p. 3.

[12] “Qaeda Chief Wants Saudi Leaders Dead,” Kuwait Times, July 30, 2011.

[13] Ibid.

[14] As stated in Inspire, “The Tsunami of Change. The unfolding revolution has brought with a wave of change. Shaykh Anwar explains.” See Inspire, Spring 1431, 2011.

[15] Edmund Hull, “To Save Yemen,” Foreign Policy, June 2, 2011.

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