Al Qaeda’s Yemen wing is probably the most dangerous of its regional offshoots since it is closest to the leadership and seeks to attack oil giant Saudi Arabia, a UN counter-terrorism official said.
Richard Barrett, Coordinator of the UN Taliban-al Qaeda Sanctions Monitoring Committee, added the menace of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was compounded by its ability to hide in unstable Yemen and the boldness of its ambition, shown by an attack on Saudi Arabia’s security chief in August.
“The most dangerous group is AQAP,” he told Reuters, saying it was seeking to attract Saudis in militant circles, “a lot” of whom were intent on attacking the kingdom.
“I don’t know for sure but if you look at the relationship between al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and any group outside, the closest is with (al Qaeda) people in Yemen.”
“That’s where they try and keep the closest contact. Although al Qaeda in the Maghreb and al-Shabaab (in Somalia) may be more active, it’s the Yemeni (al Qaeda) people who are the closest,” he said in an interview.
From a base believed to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, whose father was born in Yemen, has made a determined effort to foster self-managing affiliates further afield in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East to hit the “infidel” West and its local allies.
Barrett suggested other al Qaeda wing including in North Africa and the Horn of Africa probably carried out more frequent attacks but the peninsula group’s affinities with Gulf Arabs at al Qaeda’s core gave it extra clout in the global network.
“AQAP is the key group for the leadership because its members are from the Arabian Peninsula and can move around easily, and are culturally attuned to many within the leadership,” said Barrett.
Al Qaeda’s Yemen wing announced in January it had changed its name to AQAP, signalling an intent to strike regionally and in particular against energy power Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s northern neighbour and the world’s largest oil exporter.
The move has deepened regional concern about Yemen as the impoverished country’s security forces are already stretched by an insurgency in the north and separatist unrest in the south.
A failed attempt in August by an AQAP suicide bomber to kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who heads the kingdom’s anti-terrorism campaign, was the first attack on a royal family member since al Qaeda began attacks in the kingdom in 2003.
“The attack on Prince Mohammed was very daring and very determined and would have given them a huge boost to morale all that publicity, and to get so close!” said Barrett.
“It will bring a lot of recruits in, too, from central Arabia,” he said, adding that AQAP also “finds some local support (in Yemen)”.
Barrett, a former senior British counter-terrorism official, monitors compliance with sanctions against people and organisations with ties to the Taliban, al Qaeda and bin Laden.
Pic: Al Shabaab rebels