The Yemeni press has reported this week that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group behind the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, has a new leader. Saeed al Shihri is a Saudi terrorist with an interesting background and some grand designs for his gang—including trying to marry terrorism with piracy in a strategic waterway.
If these reports are correct, then the chief of al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise, a Yemeni named Nasir Wuhayshi, was killed in a Yemeni counterterrorist operation—almost certainly assisted by the United States—late last year. Shihri was his deputy and the co-founder of AQAP, which was a merger of two previously independent al Qaeda organizations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The struggle against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will be a tough battle, given the weakness of the Yemeni state and the remote terrain AQAP calls home.
Shihri was captured in Pakistan in December 2001 and detained in Guantanamo Bay for the next six years. He was allegedly a financier and facilitator for al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, arranging for Saudis and Yemenis to travel to Afghanistan via Bahrain to train at al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. The Bush administration released him to Saudi custody in November 2007 and he was placed in the kingdom’s rehabilitation program, which tries to transform captured jihadists into law-abiding citizens. Shihri graduated from the program in 2008. Soon thereafter, he showed up in Yemen and was involved in an attack on the American embassy in Sanaa.
In January 2009, he and Wuhayshi announced the formation of AQAP, saying they were carrying out the orders of Osama bin Laden in merging the badly weakened Saudi faction with the stronger Yemeni franchise. Dozens of Saudi al Qaeda operatives have now moved to Yemen, where they can operate much more freely than at home.
Al Qaeda has long been active in Yemen, the original home land of Osama bin Laden’s family. The bin Laden family comes from the extreme southeast of Yemen, the remote province called the Hadhramaut which is today an al Qaeda stronghold. Bin Laden offered to lead a tribal rebellion against the then-communist government in south Yemen in 1989, an offer turned down by his Saudi government hosts at the time. One of al Qaeda’s first major terror attacks was conducted in Aden in 2000 when an al Qaeda cell nearly sank the USS Cole. Bin Laden married a Yemeni woman just before the 9/11 attacks to further solidify his tribal ties to the country.
In an audio message this month, Shihri addressed bin Laden and what he called al Qaeda’s “general command in Khurassan” (meaning Afghanistan) and congratulated them for the Christmas Day plan. Shihri congratulated them for recruiting the “Nigerian brother Mujahid Umar al Farouk.” Shihri made clear in this message that AQAP takes its orders from bin Laden and the al Qaeda core hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He promised more attacks on the crusaders are coming.
Shihri also invited al Qaeda’s ally in Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, to work more closely with AQAP. Specifically, Shihri suggested that the al Shabab work with AQAP to shut down the Bab al Mandab, the narrow straits that separate Asia from Africa at the bottom of the Red Sea. Shihri in other messages has suggested that al Qaeda and the Shabab work with Somali pirates to harass shipping in the Bab al Mandab. Al Qaeda has long had ambitions to attack maritime traffic off the Yemeni coast and did attack a French oil tanker there in October 2002.
The death of AQAP’s leader, if confirmed, is a success in the war against al Qaeda and a demonstration that the Obama administration has been focused on the threat from Yemen well before Christmas Day. But the struggle against it will be a tough battle, given the weakness of the Yemeni state and the remote terrain AQAP calls home. Shihri’s call for new attacks and his grand designs on a global maritime chokepoint underscore al Qaeda’s ambitions. If the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Yemen and Somalia are now turned into a terrorist battlefield as well, the United States and its allies will need to redouble its efforts to stabilize the area.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He sailed through the Bab al Mandab last year. His book, The Search for Al Qaeda, will come out in paperback this month.