A Look At Yemeni Group Tied To Bomb Plot

Steve Inskeep talks with Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University, an expert on terrorist groups in Yemen, following the discovery of two package bombs mailed from Yemen and intended for destinations in the U.S.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to focus on the starting point for explosive packages shipped toward the United States. The public learned of that plot over the weekend, and this morning, we're going to take about Yemen, the home base of the group that is blamed for the packages.

Gregory Johnsen studies Yemen at Princeton University. He's on the line from Cairo.

Mr. Johnsen, welcome to the program.

Mr. GREGORY JOHNSEN (Ph.D. Candidate, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University): Good morning.

INSKEEP: So who is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that the White House suspects in this plot?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, this is an organization that first formed in January of 2009 when two former Guantanamo Bay detainees joined an already existing branch of al-Qaida in Yemen.

And the roots of the organization actually go back to a prison break in February 2006, when 23 al-Qaida suspects tunneled out of a maximum security prison into a neighboring mosque where they said their morning prayers and then walked out the front door with the rest of the worshipers. And just like that, al-Qaida in Yemen was back.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that the key members of this group are all people -or many of them, anyway - are people who were actually in custody at point in the very recent past?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Absolutely. Numerous of these individuals have been held by the U.S., by Saudi Arabia, by Yemen, and now they're all back out and returning to their old ways.

INSKEEP: How are they connected, if at all, to Osama bin Laden?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, the leader of this group, a man named Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was actually the personal secretary to bin Laden in the late-1990s. And what he's done since he's escaped from prison is really take that template that bin Laden used in Afghanistan and has implemented it in Yemen as a way to rebuild and resurrect his own branch of al-Qaida.

INSKEEP: And what do they want?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, their long-term goal is, of course, to establish some sort of Islamic caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula, but that's a long way off. So what they're doing at this point is really carrying attacks on the West and what they call the agents of the West. And this includes the Yemeni government, as well as the Saudi government.

So it's something right now where they're really trying to build up their ranks, increase their strength at the moment.

INSKEEP: You say the Yemeni government. We should mention that's a government that has been more or less on the side of the United States, has been cooperating with the United States and is battling Islamist insurgents, right?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Absolutely. The Yemeni government in recent months - and particularly since the Christmas day attempt - has really worked closely with the U.S. Unfortunately, through some of the errors that the U.S. has made both through an air strike in December 2009 that killed a number of civilians in southern Yemen, and then another one in the spring of 2010 that killed a Yemeni government official instead of the al-Qaida target that it was after, that cooperation has run into a few snags in recent months because of those U.S. mistakes.

INSKEEP: And when you mention the Christmas bomber, of course, you're talking about the man who was described here as the underwear bomber.

I'm curious, given those problems in recent months, what options does the United States have to respond to some kind of an attack like that if it originates in Yemen?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, this is something where I think the U.S. is really in a difficult position. I think President Obama and his administration realizes that you can't really invade Yemen, because if you do, instead of fighting 1,000, 1,500 al-Qaida fighters, you'll be fighting many multiples of that number.

At the same time, the approach that they tried in late 2009, early 2010, this sort of so-called surgical strike where they went after the leaders of al-Qaida in the hope that by killing them, by decapitating the organizations leadership, the rest of the structure would sort of collapse around itself. That's also backfired on the U.S., and, in fact, it's led to a - really, a recruiting field day for al-Qaida.

So what we have right now is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is much stronger today than it was in December of 2009 when it launched the attempt on the airliner over Detroit. We're almost a year out from that attempt, and there really hasn't been sort of the serious intellectual grappling with the diverse and numerous challenges coming out of Yemen by the Obama administration - at least to this point.

INSKEEP: Mr. Johnsen, thanks very much.

Mr. JOHNSEN: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Gregory Johnson is a Yemen expert from Princeton University.

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