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Al Qaeda-trained Americans

The FBI is working to track down several hundred American Muslims who traveled to Yemen in recent months and received training there at the hands of the al Qaeda terrorist group, according to U.S. government officials.

Intelligence reports from Yemen indicated that as many as 300 of the U.S. Islamist trainees had been given terrorist training and that many had converted to Islam while in U.S. prisons. It is not known specifically when the American al Qaeda trainees made the journey to Yemen, or — more significantly — how many of them returned to the United States, said officials familiar with U.S. counterterrorism intelligence and operations.

But the fact that so many U.S. nationals were given al Qaeda training has forced U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to redouble efforts to try and penetrate al Qaeda networks in the United States.

“We are concerned about people going to Yemen for training,” said a U.S. official, who suggested the trainees traveled in small numbers and not a large group.

The officials said the reports about the training had prompted the FBI to beef up its overseas presence in Yemen and other locations in the region as part of a renewed effort to better track potential terrorists going to Yemen.

Little is known about al Qaeda’s networks inside the United States despite increased FBI resources to monitor domestic terrorists.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment.

However, U.S. intelligence officials have expressed growing worries that Western-appearing Islamists will be used in future terrorist attacks because they can more easily pass through security screening than those from the Middle East or South Asia.

U.S. counterterrorism officials said al Qaeda in Yemen has emerged in recent months as the most dangerous wing of al Qaeda. The clandestine Islamist group, headed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri and once based in Afghanistan, has undergone an evolution that now puts Yemen as its main base of operations and support.

According to the officials, al Qaeda terrorists were driven out of Afghanistan beginning in 2001 and many remain in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

However, large numbers of al Qaeda members moved to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion and many were killed there by U.S. forces.

In recent years, al Qaeda began moving in significant numbers to Saudi Arabia, where they found financial and ideological supporters within the oil-rich kingdom. However, Saudi authorities launched a major crackdown on al Qaeda following the failed assassination attempt in August 2009 against Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism operations. An al Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up near the prince after getting through security by hiding the bomb and detonator in his rectum.

The crackdown drove the terrorists, known formally as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to Yemen, where today it remains one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorist groups.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

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