A Look At Yemeni Group Tied To Bomb Plot
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Mr. Johnsen, welcome to the program.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So who is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that the White House suspects in this plot?
JOHNSEN: 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?
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?
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?
JOHNSEN: 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?
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: 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?
JOHNSEN: 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.
JOHNSEN: Thanks so much.
INSKEEP: Gregory Johnson is a Yemen expert from Princeton University.
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