By Steve Young
On December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab arrived in Detroit, Michigan, aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 under the control of the cabin crew and passengers after attempting to detonate an explosive device that had been sewn into his underwear. Under questioning by US law enforcement personnel, Abdulmutallab admitted his ties to al-Qaeda. Within the next few days, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack.
US authorities apparently believed that Abdulmutallab was acting alone. US law enforcement initially dismissed the idea that a little-known, self-described terrorist group from Yemen had the ability to carry out the plot. What has since been demonstrated is that remotely located terrorist groups with no visible international connections, under the right circumstances, have the ability to recruit disaffected individuals with the potential to acquire US visas and send them to the United States to commit terrorist acts. Moreover, it is these types of attacks that may have the greatest potential to succeed because these individuals may not be on any terrorism watch list such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Terrorist Screening Center, and the individual has a minimal signature because there may be little or no support network. AQAP may be the group that has been the most active in carrying out these types of attacks against the continental United States.
AQAP's threat to the United States
Before he became known as the 2009 Christmas bomber, Abdulmutallab was simply the son of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a wealthy Nigerian banker living in the north central city of Funtua, a town noted as the focal point of Nigeria’s Islamic culture. Abdulmutallab had all the privileges of wealth while growing up, attending the British International School in Lome, Togo, and studying engineering and business finance at the University College in London. Abdulmutallab had been previously described as being very religious, but nonthreatening to fellow students at University College. Nevertheless, he was remembered as having once defended the Taliban’s activities in Afghanistan while in high school. He is believed to have become estranged from his father in the months prior to his suicide bombing attempt. 
Before he became known as the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1970 to Palestinian immigrants, was a graduate of Virginia Tech University with a degree in biochemistry. He served in the US Army as an enlisted man before receiving his medical degree in 2001 from the military’s Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Before arriving at Fort Hood in July 2009, he worked at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center achieving proficiency in disaster and preventive psychiatry. According to one of his university classmates, Hasan described himself as a Muslim first and an American second.
In April 2009 Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant living in Connecticut, received his American citizenship. Raised in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the son of a prominent military officer, he arrived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 2000 and enrolled at the University of Bridgeport. By 2006 he had married and bought a house in Shelton, Connecticut. But the Pakistani government’s raid in July 2007 on the Red Mosque where militants held hostages greatly outraged Shahzad. In addition, he was very upset about continued US government unmanned air vehicle strikes in the Pakistani Tribal Areas. Shahzad was seemingly a well-adjusted Pakistani immigrant settling into life in the United States. Unlike Abdulmutallab and Hasan, he did not become an extremist through deep religious conviction, but was reportedly opposed to US policy and actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Other than their common Muslim religion and the fact that each was well educated, it would seem that there was little in common among Abdulmutallab, Hasan, and Shahzad. Abdulmutallab was a deeply religious Nigerian and son of a wealthy banker. Hasan was born in the United States of Palestinian immigrants and a qualified psychiatrist who was also deeply religious. Shahzad, a newly minted US citizen with a college degree, was apparently working toward an American life in suburbia. However, it has since been determined that all three individuals had had either direct or indirect contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric born in New Mexico.
Known as a very charismatic individual, Awlaki had been interviewed by the FBI in 1999 and again after the 9/11 attacks because of Awlaki’s relationship with 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaq al-Hazmi while they were in San Diego attending Awlaki’s Arribat al-Islami mosque. In 2004 Awlaki arrived in Yemen from Britain where he established his credentials as an anti-US, anti-West critic and jihad advocate. He was imprisoned by Yemeni authorities in 2006 and, while imprisoned, studied the radical Islamic literature of Sayyid Qutb, a radical Islamic scholar who helped form Osama bin Laden’s radical Islamic views.
After his release from a Yemeni prison in 2007, Awlaki established a website that individuals such as Hasan and Shahzad found and accessed. Eighteen e-mails were exchanged between Hasan and Awlaki over a six-month period between December 2008 and June 2009. Shahzad also accessed Awlaki’s website and was apparently influenced by Awlaki, who reinforced Shahzad’s radical views. Although there has been no evidence of Shahzad having directly contacted Awlaki, Awlaki has admitted having met with Abdulmutallab as well as members of AQAP in Yemen in the fall of 2009.
Most recently, in early June 2010, a federal grand jury in US District Court for the Southern District of Texas returned an indictment charging Barry Walter Bujol, Jr. with attempting to provide material support to AQAP. Bujol, a Muslim convert, attempted to provide AQAP with currency, prepaid telephone calling cards, mobile telephone SIM cards, global-positioning system receivers, and public access-restricted US military publications. More importantly, Bujol had been communicating via e-mail with Awlaki, who had provided Bujol with the document “42 Ways of Supporting Jihad.”
It is difficult to establish Awlaki’s exact role within Yemen’s Islamic extremist Elements. He has, however, been described as a coordinator, facilitator, or talent recruiter for AQAP. As a result of his ongoing threat to the United States, the killing of Awlaki has been authorized by the president of the United States. In approving the targeted killing, the administration identified Awlaki as an AQAP operative.
According to an intelligence analysis prepared by an interagency “fusion center” in California, in an October 29, 2009, posting in Sada al-Malahim, AQAP’s online magazine, AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi announced AQAP’s intentions to conduct attacks against the US homeland, altering its original intentions to concentrate on regional targets. Considering the Christmas bombing attempt, it appears that AQAP has carried out its threat. Therefore, it appears that the counterterrorist strategy of the United States and Saudi Arabia is one of containing AQAP. The United States and Saudi Arabia, the two countries with the most to lose while AQAP remains viable, are putting money and military resources into the containment effort. It is unlikely that either country will put large forces on the ground. Moreover, a recent analysis of Yemen’s security states that even though AQAP has conducted numerous small-scale attacks over the past year within the country, the overall threat to the country’s stability appears small. Reasons given for this assessment were that, among others, the group only numbers approximately 100 to 150 individuals; there is no coherent organization within the group; the organization exists within a series of small cells; and the organization lacks coherent control. Nevertheless, AQAP has demonstrated that it can convince individuals with potential access to the United States to attempt terrorist attacks. In the end, the threat posed by Awlaki’s radical preaching and his ability to convey those radical ideas on the Internet to impressionable individuals may pose a greater long-term threat to the United States.
About the author
Dr. Young is a retired CIA operations officer with tours in the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe. A former Marine, Dr. Young also served in Iraq and Afghanistan during conflict operations and with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Houston. He currently teaches at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
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