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Middle East

Yemen’s Chaos Aids the Evolution of a Qaeda Cell

Karim Ben Khelifa

Members of Yemen's Counterterrorism Unit trained near Sana last year under the watch of an American Special Forces instructor.

Published: January 2, 2010

SANA, Yemen — Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has rapidly evolved into an expanding and ambitious regional terrorist network thanks in part to a weakened, impoverished and distracted Yemeni government.

While Yemen has chased two homegrown rebellions, over the last year the Qaeda cell here has begun sharing resources across borders and has been spurred on to more ambitious attacks by a leadership strengthened by released Qaeda detainees and returning fighters from Iraq.

The priorities of the Yemeni government have been fighting a war in the north and combating secessionists across the south. In the interim, Al Qaeda has flourished in the large, lawless and rugged tribal territories of Yemen, creating training camps, attacking Western targets and receiving increasing popular sympathy, Yemeni and American officials say.

Al Qaeda’s growing profile in Yemen became clear after a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was able to overstay his visa here by several months, connect with Qaeda militants and, American officials believe, leave this country with a bomb sewn into his underwear.

In his weekly address on Saturday, President Obama for the first time directly blamed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for the bombing attempt and said that fighting the group would be a high priority. “In recent years, they have bombed Yemeni government facilities and Western hotels,” he said, adding, “So as president, I’ve made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government.”

The core of the group here is still thought to be small, perhaps no more than 200 people. But the group has the important advantage of being part of a larger, regional structure, having merged a year ago with the Saudi branch of Al Qaeda to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And it has been able to originate fairly sophisticated operations here, in Saudi Arabia and now on an airliner headed for Detroit.

Though Yemen played an early role in Al Qaeda’s history — it is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, and it was the staging ground for the 2000 attack on the American destroyer Cole — the key chapters in the story of Al Qaeda’s rise here have been written recently by leaders who were released from detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, escaped from Yemeni prisons or were drawn to shelter here by common cause and ideology.

Those men have transformed and reoriented a weak local Qaeda cell that had made a kind of peace with the government after 2003. In the year since the Saudi and Yemeni branches merged, Al Qaeda has taken full advantage of the government’s preoccupation with the rebellions, building support from the tribal structures and traditions in Yemen’s poor and lawless territories.

One big moment came in February 2006, when 23 imprisoned men suspected of being members of Al Qaeda escaped from a high-security prison, reportedly with the aid of some Yemeni security forces. All but three or four of the men were eventually recaptured or killed by Yemeni security forces. But one prisoner, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, became leader of the Qaeda cell in Yemen and moved to reorganize it, focusing it on attacks against nearby Western targets. Another prisoner, Qassim al-Raimi, became the military commander.

The next year, Mr. Wuhayshi found a deputy and, perhaps, a rival for leadership, Said Ali al-Shihri, 36, a Saudi citizen. He was released from six years’ detention in Guantánamo Bay in December 2007 to a Saudi-run rehabilitation program. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia and emerged in Yemen, and he is considered by many to be the rising star of the local movement. Mr. Shihri had traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 and was apparently wounded there, and he was captured crossing back into Pakistan in December of that year.

Another Guantánamo detainee, also captured in Pakistan in 2001 and released to a Saudi rehabilitation program, is Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaysh, 30, a Saudi who also disappeared and is now described as the mufti, or theological guide, to Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born, English-speaking Internet imam of Al Qaeda here, returned to Yemen, his family’s home, in 2004. He was arrested in 2006 on security charges and was released in December 2007 after 18 months in prison. He then went to Britain and is believed to have returned to Yemen last spring.

Charlie Savage contributed reporting from Washington.