By David Bender and Jonathan Tepperman
Since last Friday's near-miss terror attack, when a Saudi tip-off revealed the presence of two bombs making their way by air freight from Yemen to the United States, much nervous speculation has focused on two issues. The first is the supposed sophistication of the sender, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the two year old Yemen-based franchise of the international terror group. Second is the likelihood that Yemen may be quickly collapsing into a Somalia-style failed state, which would allow AQAP to operate there unchecked.
Reports on the technical complexity of the bombs themselves -- which were disguised as printer cartridges and made it past (admittedly insufficient) cargo shipment screening -- bolster the first point. Much of the conversation has also focused on Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), the malleable military-grade high explosive used in these most recent attempts, as well as in the aborted 2009 Christmas Day underwear bombing (also attributed to AQAP in Yemen). Such components mean that "these bombs have the hallmark of a higher degree of professionalism that we've ever seen come out of al Qaeda before," according to Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer in the Middle East.
Is Yemen the next Somalia? The debate over Yemen's fragility is framed by the severe challenges facing the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh: tribal rebellion in the north, secessionist pressures in the south, and a dysfunctional economy marred by rampant corruption and dwindling oil and water resources. On top of all that is AQAP, which is now aiming its guns on the government: the group has killed 70 police officers and soldiers in the past four weeks.
Taking a closer look at both of these concerns -- in Baer's words a "new, more dangerous wave of terrorism" in the United States and impending disintegration in Yemen -- reveals that both are overstated. It's not that AQAP isn't worth worrying about. But the danger is not quite on the level of catastrophe.
For example, while AQAP has made several attempts at striking targets abroad -- printer cartridges, explosive underwear, and in one case, a bomb stuffed inside the bomber himself -- so far, all of these plans have failed.
While all of these attacks could have had devastating consequences if they actually succeeded, they pale in comparison to the sort of mega-strikes al Qaeda central has pulled off. The Pakistan-based major league outfit is known for meticulous planning, simultaneous strikes (like the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania), and monumental targets (such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon). The Yemeni team, judging by its track record, relies on eager but untrained volunteers and luck to hit its much smaller objectives. This scattershot approach may make future attacks more difficult to uncover and stop. But it also means the organization is unlikely to succeed -- and that even if it does, the attacks won't have anywhere near the international impact of 9/11.
While Washington may not yet understand AQAP very well or its place in Yemen's complex political and tribal matrix, Saudi intelligence seems to have effectively penetrated the organization. The Saudis have been watching the group carefully since the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda merged and started targeting Riyadh. And the Saudi efforts have paid off. The key role the Saudis played in disrupting the recent bomb attempts suggests that the kingdom's intelligence either has human assets in AQAP or at least has gained the ability to monitor its communications. As a result, Western and allied intelligence organizations have far more insight into this branch than they do into its Pakistan-based sponsor.
As for Yemen, there are good reasons not to count it out quite yet. Yes, the country's long-term prognosis is grim. But Saleh is a wily operator who has stayed in power for 32 years by relying on bribes, tribal manipulations, kidnappings, and military force. For the next few years, at least, Washington and Riyadh -- both acutely aware of the risks the country's collapse would pose -- will not abandon him. On the contrary, they'll keep supporting Yemen with generous financial and military aid. Of course, Sanaa must be careful how it proceeds. The United States and Saudi Arabia are the object of much hostility among Yemeni public. Public exposure of U.S. military counterterrorism operations killing Yemenis (as when the Bush administration leaked a U.S .operation in Yemen in 2002) could end up weakening Saleh's position and boosting AQAP's popularity.
AQAP is plenty dangerous and a failed Yemeni state is a big risk -- eventually. But Yemen is not yet in crisis and this is not the worst terrorist threat the United States has faced.
David Bender is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Jonathan Tepperman is Eurasia Group's Managing Editor and a columnist at TheAtlantic.com.
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