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Local fighters guard a government hospital in Jaar, Yemen.

Local fighters guard a hospital wing partly destroyed by a U.S. drone strike in Jaar, Yemen.

Photograph by Yuri Kozyrev, NOOR/Redux

Joshua Hammer in Berlin

for National Geographic

Published August 12, 2013

The conversation intercepted by U.S. intelligence last month was chilling: a conference call between Ayman  al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's leader, and a dozen chiefs of his international affiliates, including Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a former aide to Osama bin Laden and the head of al Qaeda's arm based in Yemen.

Though short on specifics, the discussion, hinting at a major terrorist plot being planned against Western targets, set off alarms across the Middle East.

The U.S. government issued a terrorism alert and temporarily closed 19 embassies and consulates. Yemen's defense ministry heightened security around the Bab el-Mandeb waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden—the site of the 2000 terrorist attack against the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 American sailors.

The red alert served as a reminder of the resilience of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist organization that established itself in Yemen following a 2009 crackdown on the group in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Under the leadership of al-Wuhayshi, the group recruited heavily among impoverished tribes, gaining support and strength despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the U.S. in Yemen's counterinsurgency program and despite drone attacks that decimated AQAP's top leadership. (In September 2011 a missile fired from an unmanned aircraft killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the New-Mexico-born imam who had risen to become one of the group's top recruiters and spiritual leaders.)

In 2011, during the Arab Spring popular uprising that led to the downfall of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, al Qaeda took advantage of the political confusion and the breakdown of army discipline to seize control of two towns in Abyan Province east of Aden.

Militants Said to Be Everywhere

The militants declared the two towns the caliphates of Zinjibar and Jaar, imposed sharia, and drove tens of thousands of people to the relative safety of displaced centers in Aden.

During a visit to Aden for National Geographic shortly after al Qaeda's victories that year, I found the city gripped by fear: The terrorists were making occasional forays into the city to set up temporary checkpoints and launch hit-and-run attacks against the Yemeni police and army.

Yemen's Central Security Forces recovered from their 2011 humiliation with a spring 2012 offensive that seized back Zinjibar and Jaar, killed nearly 400 militants, and sent hundreds, if not thousands, fleeing to their mountain redoubts.

But "what the Yemeni government called the 'defeat of al Qaeda' became a victory," one Yemeni journalist who has covered the Islamists for a decade told me last week.

"Before, they were concentrated in certain areas, and surrounded by the army. But now they have spread out. They are everywhere."

 

 Family members mourn a teenage girl who was killed by a sniper.
In Aden, family members mourn a teenage girl who was killed by a sniper.

Photograph by Stephanie Sinclair, National Geographic

 

Al Qaeda's Dynamic New Leaders

Under the leadership of a dynamic new second-in-command, the Saudi-born Ibrahim al-Rubaish—who replaced Said al-Shehri, killed by a drone attack in November 2012—AQAP has stepped up its recruitment of poor, disaffected young men in the mountains of southeast Yemen.

And the master bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri—who created the device that Nigerian jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab strapped in his underwear and tried to detonate on a plane to Detroit in 2009—has proven that the organization's reach can expand far beyond its chaotic home base.

Yemen's Central Security Forces have received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the U.S. government during the last few years.

The money has gone to fund counterterrorism training programs and to provide equipment ranging from ammunition to night vision goggles to navigational systems.

But despite the success of the ground offensive in Abyan last year, "all of the highly qualified and trained antiterrorism units lost their effectiveness," the Yemeni journalist says. "They are not doing counterinsurgency. They are mostly setting up checkpoints; they are like traffic police."

Drones the Sole Defense

That has made the drone program, run by the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA and operating from two locations—an airstrip deep in the Saudi desert and an expanding base in Djibouti—the only effective weapon the U.S. has in defeating al Qaeda.

Since July 27, the U.S. has carried out at least eight drone strikes in the remote mountainous areas and valleys where al Qaida's top five commanders are believed to be based, killing dozens of militants, all of them mid- and low-ranking fighters.

The drone strikes have placed al Qaeda on the defensive. "They are confusing and damaging the militants a lot," says the Yemeni journalist.

Still, some Yemenis worry about a backlash.

 

 A vehicle destroyed by a drone strike on August 10 in Lahj Province, Yemen.
A vehicle destroyed by a drone strike that killed two people on August 10 in Lahj Province, Yemen.

Photograph from Reuters

 

Civilian Casualties

Although the CIA works closely with Yemeni intelligence to pinpoint al Qaeda movements, civilian casualties are unavoidable: A teenage boy was reported killed last week after accepting a ride from a group of militants whose car was later blown up by a missile.

For the first time ever, a U.S. drone circled high above Sanaa last Wednesday and Thursday, causing fears that the U.S. was preparing to strike in the heart of the capital.

"I saw it with my own eyes from my rooftop, day and night," one resident told me. "They make a noise, they trouble you, they don't let people sleep. People are angry, they say that this is a violation of Yemeni sovereignty."

Whatever the result of the latest round of air strikes, a mid-level AQAP operative predicted that the organization would recover its footing and assured National Geographic in a telephone conversation that the group's campaign against the U.S. and other targets would not be deterred.

"We are doing this," he said, "to establish the rule of Allah."

1 comments
John C.
John C.

So much for Obama/Hillary "smart diplomacy". Foreign policy accomplishments the past 4 1/2 years: zero. Al Qaeda is running wild and Russia, China, Iran, etc. consider the Administration to be a laughing stock.

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