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10.30.10

The Brains Behind the Foiled Plane Plot

All signs point to Al Qaeda's Yemen branch, which has a clever bomb-maker and a U.S.-born mastermind. Obama's strategic Af-Pak adviser and ex-CIA analyst Bruce Riedel on how to defang our most dangerous enemy.

There is much we do not know about the latest terror threat this weekend. Who was behind it? Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has a clever bomb maker in Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri; was it AQAP? How lethal were the explosive devices discovered? Forensics will tell a lot soon. Who provided the tip-off? The Saudis? Information from the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates? How did the informants know?

But there is one thing we know for sure: the timing, the weekend before Election Day. That timing is vintage al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden has been focused on American elections and our politics for years. Most famously he put out an audio message on the eve of the 2004 election to remind voters he was still alive and dangerous. His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, spoke out in 2008 as the election neared. It's not that al Qaeda cares who wins our elections; the group regards all American political leaders as Zionist-controlled, war-mongering Crusaders. They just want to crash the party. Which they may have just done again.

Let's assume it was AQAP. They have an American advisor, Anwar al- Awlaki, born in New Mexico, who knows us better than most. He is the evil genius behind AQAP's English-language web journal Inspire, whose two issues so far have been a how-to-kill handbook for aspiring terrorists. He knows how America works from Election Day to Super Bowl Sunday. He was probably the brains behind sending a Nigerian terrorist to blow up a jet last Christmas. He knows our national rhythms from Halloween to Thanksgiving and back. He deserves to be on the most-wanted list.

It's not that al Qaeda cares who wins our elections. They just want to crash the party.

What if this plot had worked? Or the Christmas plot? Some would urge we go into Yemen with our own troops like Iraq. That's exactly what bin Laden wants--one more bleeding war in a mountainous country where xenophobia is several millenia old. Obama faces tough choices. The government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is weak and corrupt and only partly focused on AQAP since it has a host of other problems, like running out of water and oil fast. I know Saleh well. We first met 20 years ago. He is a survivor who will try to manipulate everyone to stay in power and see that his son takes over next. He clearly is not defanging AQAP. But do it ourselves and we own Yemen, a failing state.

So we need more pressure on AQAP, but with a scalpel, not a chain saw. Get the rich Gulf Arabs to do more to help Yemen. Make Aden, once a hub of the British empire's global trade, a world-class port again. Invest in Yemeni gas exploration. Get India to invest. And send drones too. Don't go in stupid; play smart.

Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama's request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He's also the author of The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.