Bruce Hoffman

Not So Strange Bedfellows

As the ninth anniversary of the September 11th 2001 attacks approaches, it would be hard to imagine two more depressing assessment of progress in the war on terrorism than those reported in both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal today.

In “CIA sees increased threat in Yemen,” the Post’s Greg Miller and Peter Finn describe how

For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, CIA analysts see one of al-Qaeda's offshoots——rather than the core group now based in Pakistan as the most urgent threat to U.S. security, officials said.

The sober new assessment of al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen has helped prompt senior Obama administration officials to call for an escalation of U.S. operations there——including a proposal to add armed CIA drones to a clandestine campaign of U.S. military strikes, the officials said.

Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal story, “U.S. Weighs Expanded Strikes in Yemen,” Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman report that the same U.S. officials are also alarmed by the increasing cooperation between the key al Qaeda affiliate cited above——al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)——and al Shabab, its Somali ally. “U.S. counterterrorism officials,” they write,

believe the two groups are working more closely together than ever. ‘The trajectory is pointing in that direction,’ a U.S. counterterrorism official said of a growing nexus between the Islamist groups. He said the close proximity between Yemen and Somalia ‘allows for exchanges, training.’

AQAP of course is the group responsible for the attempted in-flight bombing of a NorthWest passenger aircraft en route from Amsterdam to Detroit last Christmas Day. In addition, the American-born, firebrand Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki——who is profiled in today’s USA Today, where he is described as the “bin Laden of the Internet”—-is a senior AQAP operative.

And, al Shabab was behind last month’s simultaneous, and devastatingly lethal, suicide bomb attacks in Uganda. That group had previously come to the attention of U.S. authorities in late 2008 for having successfully deployed the first American citizen on a suicide bombing mission (against United Nations peacekeepers and international aid workers in northern Somalia) and also for having recruited upwards of thirty Somali-Americans to come to Somalia and train in its camps.

Less than a year ago, senior Obama Administration counterterrorism officials regarded AQAP as “a lethal organization, but one focused [only] on the Arabian Peninsula”. The same assessment doubtless was applied to al Shabab. But, as both articles make clear, the ambitions——and more disturbingly——the combined capabilities of the two groups have unexpectedly and rapidly developed now to pose a new and more complex threat to the U.S. itself.

"It's very possible,” Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence is quoted in the Wall Street Journal article as predicting that “the next terrorist attack [against the U.S.] will see its origins coming out of Yemen and Somalia rather than out of Pakistan."

As I wrote in the same article published in the National Interest last spring which quoted the aforementioned senior Obama Administration counterterrorism official,

it seems clear that whether it was Iraq during the Bush administration, or Afghanistan and Pakistan now in the Obama administration, we rivet our attention on only one trouble spot at a time, forgetting that al-Qaeda has always been a networked transnational movement with an existent central leadership along with affiliates and associates and assorted hangers-on scattered across multiple operational environments. In other words, it is not a monolithic entity confined to one geographical area.

Judging from today’s articles in the Post and the Journal, we are still grappling with our understanding of a threat that is as resilient as it is dynamic——and which remains able to replicate and manifest itself in new places and in ever more challenging ways.