For Al-Qaida In Yemen, Targeting U.S. Is Personal

While counterterrorism officials absorb Wednesday's mixed verdict in the first civilian trial of a former Guantanamo detainee, they are focusing on some other, very different, Guantanamo prisoners — those who never stood trial but instead were released to other countries and then left to their own devices.

Many of the detainees who were released back to Yemen and Saudi Arabia have popped up in the ranks of one specific branch of al-Qaida: its arm in Yemen known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. That's the same group that claimed responsibility for last month's package bomb plot and last year's attempted bombing of Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

A Deeper Dislike Of America

Counterterrorism officials are trying to solve the mystery of why AQAP — more than any other arm of al-Qaida — seems to have such a visceral dislike of the United States.

Its focus on America as a target has gone beyond the mantras of al-Qaida's narrative. It is about more than just U.S. soldiers in Muslim lands or America's foreign policy. The enmity seems deeper, more personal.

"It's not that Osama bin Laden or Ayman Zawahiri ever had any great love of the United States, but to them we were just an enemy," says Bruce Hoffman, who heads Georgetown University's security studies program.

"With AQAP the hostility toward the U.S. seems to be different. Individuals in that organization — people who either served time at Guantanamo or lived in the United States — seem to have an almost cathartic approach to their violence," he says.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees.

"Osama bin Laden had very philosophical goals with his movement and the original movements of al-Qaida," Nelson says. "He didn't really have a personal grudge against the United States. He held something against U.S. and Western policies."

Nelson adds, "What you are seeing with some of the affiliates — and particularly with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — their operations are based out of personal vendetta more than it is the greater al-Qaida narrative."

Consider the names on AQAP's membership roster. It seems that at least part of the group's anger is rooted in its members' negative and direct connections to America.

The Guantanamo Connection

The organization's leadership reads like a list of former Guantanamo detainees. The brother of AQAP's leader was at Guantanamo. Its second in command, its operations chief and its top theologian — they were all at Guantanamo and were either released to their home countries or to a Saudi Arabian reeducation program that was supposed to convince them to give up their violent jihad.

In addition to ornery former detainees, AQAP also boasts some high-profile American members including the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and an editor and propagandist named Samir Khan. Analysts say the combustible combination of detainees and angry expatriates means the group now sees its battle against America as something visceral.

In an interview with NPR earlier this year, former detainee Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, recited a poem from memory about his experience in Guantanamo. He called it "Indictment USA."

"The last verses are like this," he said in the interview, "'They suffered an atrocity and want us all to pay, but I wish no proximity to such a USA. Vulgarity is not my style, but still I have to say, this occasion causes me to revile, so f—- the USA.'"

Since his release in 2005, Begg has become an activist in Britain and has not been formally linked to AQAP. But al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is filled with people who share Begg's experience and perhaps his anger toward the United States.

Militants Bred In The U.S.

There is a second group influencing al-Qaida's arm in Yemen: its American members.

Awlaki, the radical cleric, left the U.S. in 2002 and was arrested in Yemen four years later. Initially Yemeni officials said he was under arrest for the role he was planning in a local tribal dispute. But a short time later, FBI officials showed up to question him.

"For the first nine months I was in solitary confinement in an underground cell," Awlaki told Begg in a telephone interview in 2007, shortly after he was released from prison. "No interaction with any other prisoner was allowed for the entire nine months."

Awlaki has blamed the U.S. for his incarceration and shortly after he was released he began producing fiery sermons on the Internet calling on followers to join the violent jihad.

When the U.S. revealed that he was on a CIA capture-or-kill list — essentially targeting him for assassination — Awlaki was more explicit: He called on his followers to come to Yemen and fight or to kill Americans.

One of the people who appears to have answered that call is Khan, a 25-year-old American.

Unlike other AQAP recruits, he never spent time in prison. But from his parents' basement in North Carolina, he launched a pro-al-Qaida blog that developed a following.

He boarded a flight to Yemen last October. Six months later al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's English language magazine, Inspire, was published on the Web. Khan is thought to be the editor. (A federal grand jury reconvened this week to decide whether to formally charge Khan with providing material support to a terrorist organization.)

The second issue of Inspire came out in October. Khan has a cover article entitled: "I Am Proud to Be a Traitor to America."

On page 51 of the fall issue is a photograph of the Chicago skyline — with no explanation. Less than a month after Inspire's second issue hit the Web, AQAP sent two explosive-laden packages on cargo planes to the U.S. Their destination: Chicago.

The photo may have been a clue dangled on a string for U.S. intelligence officials to puzzle out: a dig they would understand, after the fact.

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