Yesterday, U.S. national security officials announced that the CIA and other U.S. agencies, working with foreign intelligence services, had uncovered and disrupted an al-Qaeda plot to bomb civilian aircraft. The terrorist operation, hatched by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has launched several high-profile attacks in the past, involved an improved version of the “underwear bomb” that was built without metal parts to make it more difficult to detect.
The sophisticated bomb is believed to have been built by Ibrahim al-Asiri, an accomplished AQAP bomb maker responsible for the foiled underwear bomber who tried to destroy a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, plots to destroy planes over U.S. cities with bombs hidden in printer cartridges in 2010, and a 2009 failed plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief. Al-Asiri sacrificed his own younger brother in that suicide attack, which reportedly involved a small bomb implanted in his brother’s rectal cavity. ABC News revealed on April 30 that he now may be attempting to implant bombs inside the bodies of terrorists to destroy passenger airliners.
Yemen, which has been destabilized by political discontent amplified by the “Arab Spring” protests, has experienced a vacuum of power that AQAP has exploited to expand its base of operations. Earlier this week, AQAP launched an attack that killed 20 Yemeni soldiers. AQAP now is believed to pose more of a threat to the U.S. homeland than any other al-Qaeda franchise.
To counter the threat, the CIA and the Pentagon have stepped up drone strikes against AQAP. Earlier this week, a drone strike killed Fahd al-Quso, a top AQAP leader wanted by the FBI for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in the Yemeni port of Aden. Al-Quso had succeeded Anwar al-Awlaki as the head of AQAP external operations after Awlaki was killed in a drone strike last September.
Although the drone strikes are a useful tool for weakening AQAP and disrupting its terrorist plots without putting U.S. combat boots on the ground in the Yemeni snake pit, AQAP clearly continues to pose a major threat to the U.S. homeland. Yet the Obama Administration is eager to declare that “the war on terror is over,” as an anonymous State Department official told National Journal.
While this theme may appeal to President Obama’s liberal supporters in the run-up to the November election, al-Qaeda clearly does not agree. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his diehard followers remain determined to massacre Americans in their unholy war. Al-Qaeda has benefited from the fall of regimes opposed to Islamist terrorism during the “Arab Spring” and is exploiting the chaos in Yemen, Libya, and Syria to expand its influence. Analysts warn that al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan could find a surplus of militant recruits after the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan.
The Obama Administration’s premature declaration of victory against al-Qaeda also will be cold comfort to Warren Weinstein, an American hostage held by al-Qaeda. The 70-year-old aid worker was kidnapped in Lahore, Pakistan, last August and surfaced in a video released on Sunday in which he was coerced by his captors into calling for a release of all al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners and an end to air strikes.
Rather than downplaying the war against al-Qaeda for political reasons before the presidential election and continuing the “whack-a-mole” approach to counterterrorism—which cedes the initiative to the enemy—the Obama Administration needs to develop a systematic approach to divide, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda’s terrorist network and affiliated organizations.