Another underpants bomb plot from Yemen

As another bomb plot emerges it is increasingly clear that victory in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will lie in a political solution in Yemen

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Ghaffar Hussain
On 8 May 2012 13:36

It has been announced by US officials that a plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to detonate an upgraded version of the underpants bomb has been thwarted. The device itself has been seized by intelligence operatives and is currently being examined by the FBI.

No individuals have been connected with the plot yet nor have any further details about the plot come to light. However, it would be fair to assume that the device was built to evade airport security and detonate whilst worn by someone on an aircraft heading for the US.

The bomb is thought to be the work of AQAPs master bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al Asiri. Al-Asiri was the brains behind the underpants bomb, worn by Umar Farouk Abu-Mutallib, and the ink cartridge bombs that were heading for the US via a cargo plane. He also assembled the explosive device, concealed in the anal cavity of his brother Abdullah al-Asiri, which attempted to target the Saudi Deputy Minister of the Interior in August 2009.

This story is significant because it brings to the fore a number of important recent developments in international terrorism. The death of bin Laden and the decimation of al-Qaeda cadres in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region have resulted in the centre of gravity for al-Qaeda shifting to the Yemen. This process has been aided by the Arab Spring since popular protests led to the removal of Abdullah Saleh and subsequently plunged Yemen into chaos and disunity. AQAP has been able to capitalise on the chaos and in-fighting in Yemen and establish a safe haven for itself.

The above is evident from a number of recent attacks launched by AQAP on disunited and demoralised government forces, resulting in hundreds of casualties. AQAP cadres have also come down from their mountain hideouts in recent months and taken over whole areas in south Yemen, establishing training camps as well as their unique brand of Shariah. This has allowed them to re-group, re-energise and re-focus their sights on capturing more territory and targeting the great Satan.

US drones are also operating in Yemen and have managed to successfully eliminate senior AQAP operatives including Anwar al-Awlaki, an influential US born preacher who focused on recruiting people from the English language speaking world, and Fahd al-Quso, who was connected to the USS Cole attack in October, 2000.

Aircraft have been a popular choice of target for al-Qaeda since 9/11. Bringing down a US bound aircraft creates headlines, illustrates expertise, shows strength and boosts morale. Morale has not been particularly high in recent years and al-Qaeda has not managed to launch a spectacular attack on a western target in the same period. Hence, we have every reason to believe that they will continue to find new and ingenious ways of targeting aircraft.

This story will also re-ignite the debate about airport security. Most airports around the world have only metal detectors, yet the underpants bomb seized, as well as its earlier incarnation, didn’t contain metal. Body scanners are still being debated and it would take many years to roll them out across the world in any case. Furthermore, not all countries have the necessary resources and infrastructure required to provide sophisticated airport security.

In the short-term, governments around the world, working with aviation authorities, need to place emphasis on suitable technology and intelligence based profiling techniques in order to detect and thwart future terrorist attacks. Racial or religious profiling clearly doesn’t work since terrorists come from all kinds of backgrounds and one’s religious affiliation isn’t always written on ones face.

The long-term solution to the threat posed by AQAP is for the international community to work with the Yemeni authorities in order to aid the process of forming a representative and credible government. This should lead to the re-invigoration of morale and create unity of purpose within the armed forces, which is a necessary requisite if AQAP is to be tackled and defeated. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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