The failed Christmas Day attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 serves as a startling reminder of extremist violence and exposes the growing terrorist threat of the Arabian Peninsula.
23-year-old Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab is currently in U.S. custody after attempting to detonate an explosive device during Flight 253’s descent towards Detroit Metro Airport en route from Amsterdam. The plastic explosive concealed in Mutallab’s underwear failed to ignite properly, resulting in burns to his lower body but no major structural damage to the aircraft. He was subsequently extinguished and subdued by passengers aboard the flight.
While disaster was averted, the incident has highlighted what U.S. president Barack Obama called “systemic and human failures” in American intelligence during his address from Honolulu on Dec. 29. Obama also confirmed reports that prominent Nigerian banker and former statesman Umaru Mutallab, Umar Mutallab’s father, had relayed concerns of his son’s extremist involvement, which “could have, and should have, been pieced together” by American counter-terrorist agencies.
Equally as concerning is the orchestration of the plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a subordinate faction of Al Qaeda based not in the familiar extremist homesteads of Afghanistan or post-war Iraq but rather in the emerging hotbed of Yemen. Obama explained during his address that Mutallab had traveled to Yemen where he had come into contact with AQAP members who “trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”
This was not the first major terrorist attack with Yemeni roots. The Al Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole at the port of Aden made Yemen a focus for counter-terrorism efforts in 2000. More recently, a group calling itself Islamic Jihad in Yemen claimed responsibility for the 2008 car bombing of the American embassy in the capital city of Sana’a.
Boasting an unemployment rate of 40 per cent, Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries; it is also one facing increasing political instability. While Yemen’s democratic central government has American support and sponsorship, it struggles to maintain political authority. The administration is simultaneously facing a civil war against ethnic Shia militias in its north and a growing secessionist movement in its resource-rich south.
It is in this political climate that Al Qaeda is “largely free to do what it wants in certain areas,” said Princeton University’s Gregory Johnsen in an interview with the New York Times. According to Johnsen, Al Qaeda leaders have begun marrying into Yemeni tribes and are assuming positions of social leadership. “This development is both new and worrying because it has the potential to turn any counter-terrorism operation into a much broader war involving Yemen’s tribes.”
While the events of Christmas Day have emphasized the importance of stabilizing the region, experts warn against aggressive American intervention.
Former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told the Toronto Star, “If we try to deal with this as an American security problem … dealt with by American military, we risk exacerbating the problem.
“The objective of U.S. policy should therefore be more modest and aimed at helping to bring Yemen back from the brink by increasing its domestic stability. This task will not be achieved easily, quickly or inexpensively.”