Underwear Bomb Plot: The Yemen Connection

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Gregory Johnsen is a Near East studies scholar at Princeton University and has been following this story closely. Bruce Riedel talked about the drone attacks as being a US effort to terrorize the terrorists. How does that play out in Yemen?

Gregory Johnsen: Right, that's a really good question and it's something that if we sort of take a broader view of what's happening in Yemen and we go back to Christmas Day 2009, this is the day that the so-called Underwear Bomber attempted to bring down the airliner over Detroit. At that point in time AQAP had about 200-300 members within Yemen and it controlled no territory.

Werman: AQAP, that's al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Johnsen: Yeah, that's correct, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Now today, 2-1/2 years later the group has more than tripled in strength up to over a thousand members and now it controls towns. It runs police departments. It runs a court system and so forth within Southern Yemen. And so there I believe two major causes for this sort of rapid, rapid growth at the organization for how much stronger it's grown in the last 2-1/2 years. One is that these US drone strikes which have killed a number of individuals within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but there've also been some mistakes and they've killed a number of women and children, and AQAP has used this as sort of recruiting posters to gain more members. Also of course, the Yemeni military has really cractured and fragmented during the uprisings of last year and AQAP has moved in.

Werman: So included in those numbers you cite, Gregory, are Yemenis, foreign fighters? Who are they?

Johnsen: They're both. So we see more Yemenis joining the organization, but now we see Yemen much like Pakistan used to be in the days after September 11, 2001, as sort of a magnet for everybody who wanted to participate in a jihad against the US. Now we see Yemen becoming that magnet.

Werman: So how much of a safe haven has Yemen become for these extremists? Is it the new Afghanistan?

Johnsen: Well the new Afghanistan might be a bit much, but certainly AQAP itself sees itself as basically a functioning government in parts of Yemen. This is unlike say Christmas Day 2009 to go back to sort of that time peg when AQAP was operating in the shadows, hiding out in mountains and caves. Now what they're doing is they're operating openly. They're walking around the streets and in fact they're the power in control.

Werman: So back to the idea of terrorizing the terrorists. I mean if we can assume generally speaking that's the US strategy in Yemen at the moment, what is the blowback from that? I mean isn't terrorizing the terrorists precisely what helps fuel the numbers in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

Johnsen: Yeah, that's certainly one of the main blowbacks and one of the main concerns is that these drone strikes, when they're good they're very good, and so they can remove individuals from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The strike against Fahd al-Quso over the weekend, a major figure within AQAP, this is an example of that, but they're also times such as in December 2009 when a US missile strike plowed into a Bedouin encampment and killed more than 40 women and children. And so it's really a mixed bag with the drone strikes; when they go bad they go very bad, and AQAP quickly takes advantage of this.

Werman: Gregory, what have you learned about Yemen through this episode, through this bomb plot that you feel hasn't gotten much attention?

Johnsen: Well I think one of the things is that a) AQAP is much stronger than it was the last time we really focused on it in 2009. The group has more than tripled in strength as I mentioned and it controls a lot of territory. But we shouldn't be surprised that AQAP is attempting to carry out attacks against the West. The group has a great deal of resolve and in fact, its resolve has remained fairly steady over the past several years. What we see changing is the talent of the organization, how much it adapts. So now from the attempt on Christmas Day 2009 to today, by all reports the bomb is sort of a generation evolved from what we saw. So when AQAP fails they go to school on that failure and they come back stronger and with better bombs. Thankfully, this time Saudi Intelligence was on top of it.

Werman: Gregory Johnsen, Near East studies scholar at Princeton, thank you very much indeed.

Johnsen: Absolutely, thanks so much for having me.