- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2013

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, whose threats have prompted the closure of Western embassies in the Arab world this week, has drawn attention to the danger posed by the terrorist network’s “periphery” over its “core” organization on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The persistent threat of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has put the terrorist group squarely in the cross hairs of U.S. and international action.

A U.S. drone strike Wednesday — the fifth in 11 days — in southern Yemen reportedly killed seven AQAP militants, as Yemen’s government announced it had foiled an al Qaeda plot to attack ports and gas facilities.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri recently put AQAP leader Nasser al-Wahishi in charge of the network’s day-to-day operations, effectively making him second in command, said a U.S. official who asked for anonymity in order to discuss security matters. Al-Wahishi’s promotion is “another indication of al Qaeda’s thinning bench in Pakistan,” the official said.

Meanwhile, other al Qaeda affiliates have carried out operations throughout the Islamic world:

Jubhat al-Nusrah, also known as the Nusrah Front, has joined with Syrian insurgents in their 2-year-old bid to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Nusrah fighters have proved to be among the opposition’s best warriors.


SEE ALSO: Obama: Al Qaeda ‘on the way to defeat’


Al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings that have killed more than 1,000 people in just the past month and set the country on a path toward sectarian civil war.

Al-Shabab has conducted an insurgency in Somalia, where the internationally backed government in Mogadishu has a tenuous hold on security in the rest of the country.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters in January seized a Western-owned natural gas plant in the Sahara near the Algerian border town of Ain Amenas. A four-day siege ended with the deaths of three Americans and scores of Algerian and foreign nationals who had been taken hostage.

The apparent effectiveness of the affiliates has suggested to some analysts that the Obama administration has overstated the difference between al Qaeda’s core and its periphery.

“It doesn’t make sense to draw a firm line between the ‘core’ of al Qaeda and the affiliates,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Al Qaeda’s senior leaders count on the affiliates to strike out as part of the same organization,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “If the affiliates are successful, then al Qaeda overall is successful.”

But Anna Boyd, a Middle East analyst at the defense intelligence firm IHS/Jane’s, noted that even with its elevated leadership, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “lacks the capability to launch attacks outside the country.”

“Outside Yemen, AQAP’s operational network is weak,” Ms. Boyd said, noting that the group’s recent plots against the West had either relied on a single foreign recruit, such as would-be “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or have been launched from Yemen itself, like the effort to attack a synagogue in Chicago by sending a bomb hidden in a shipping package.

U.S. officials, however, said the man behind the bombs used in both those plots, AQAP explosives specialist Ibrahim al-Asirri, is a key part of what makes the terrorist group so dangerous.

“AQAP has demonstrated tenacity and creativity in its external plotting — two elements that make the group a concern even beyond Yemen,” the U.S. official said.

Two years after the U.S. commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, President Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University that a new approach is needed to counter a diminished but still potent threat from a central al Qaeda organization decimated by drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan.

“Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us,” Mr. Obama said, noting that al Qaeda affiliates had emerged. “The threat today is more diffuse.”

He singled out al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as “the most active in plotting against our homeland,” while noting that “none of [their] efforts approach the scale” of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Ms. Boyd said the group’s ability to recruit foreign operatives with no history of terrorism and who can travel legally to the West without arousing suspicion was severely diminished in September 2011, when two U.S. drone strikes killed AQAP’s top English-language propagandists — U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.

“We assess it would be difficult for the group to mount an attack on a hard target like an embassy anywhere other than in Yemen,” she said.

But a second U.S. official who requested anonymity in order to discuss security matters disagreed, saying U.S. intelligence believes AQAP is “capable of striking outside of Yemen.”

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