The Renewed Threat of Terrorism

The Renewed Threat of Terrorism

  • 7 January 2010

The threat from terrorist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda refuses to go away and reminds the world every now and then that they may hide for a while but would always strike at the time and place of their choosing. It is true that the eight years of global war on terror, waged by the United States and its allies since September 11, 2001, has weakened the abilities of these organizations. However, terrorism still remains a major regional and international challenge and terrorists are still capable of recruiting more into their ranks. This situation demands enhanced cooperation between different countries in the face of a threat that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown predicts will continue to be real in the next decade.

There are evidences to validate this conclusion. Just when things looked stable in Iraq, terrorists launched a series of explosions on December 8, taking hundreds of innocent lives. The blasts targeted government buildings and a commercial area in Baghdad and killed around 130, injuring more than 400. Similarly a volleyball playground in Pakistan was the target of a terrorist attack that killed at least 90. In August 2009, there was an assassination bid on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy interior minister in charge of security in Saudi Arabia.

The failed attempt to bomb an American NorthWest Airline flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25 is the latest example of continuing terror attempts across the world. The suspect in this case is Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, a young Nigerian who was recruited by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is active in Yemen. This is said to be in retaliation of the raids carried out by US and Yemeni forces on sites the organization’s targets in Yemen. Following this attempt, terrorism has once again become the highest priority for Americans because this foiled plot could have been a repeat of the tragedy of September 11. The episode also exposed a dangerous breach of security, especially for Western intelligence agencies as the suspect was already on the monitored list in Britain. AbdulMutallab was able to board the plane with a handbag in which he concealed explosive material despite strict inspection procedures followed at Western airports. Intelligence agencies also failed to take notice of his father’s warnings on AbdulMutallab’s radical ideas. This operation suggests a dangerous expansion of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as this is not the first time the organization has claimed responsibility for terror operations. Its earlier bid to assassinate Saudi minister had prompted Western analysts to suggest that the organization might launch its future operations from its new base in Yemen.

The similarity between the December 25 plot and September 11 attacks, in which Al-Qaeda used civilian airplanes, has mobilized American security agencies. President Barack Obama had to cut short his vacation in Hawaii to calm down panic even as he promised to track down all those responsible. John Brennan, Obama’s senior counter terrorism official, promised that his country would completely eradicate Al-Qaeda. “We will show through our efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other places that even if Al-Qaeda elements succeeded to escape they will not be able to hide … we are determined to destroy Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, and we will achieve this,” he said. Following this episode, American authorities also tightened special procedures to fight terrorism. It imposed stricter rules on flights bound for the US from 14 countries, subjecting them to extra security checks, which include Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda threats also forced the US – and Britain and France – to close their embassies in Sana’a. Washington and London also agreed to finance a special security unit to fight terrorism in Yemen. No details were given on the composition of this force, its nature and whether it would include American and British elements or will be limited to Yemeni security apparatus. British Prime Minister also proposed an international conference on terrorism Yemen in London on January 29 alongside a scheduled conference on Afghanistan to be held in the British capital on the same day.

Observers believe there has been a change in American behavior and Obama’s strategy on terrorism. The administration was earlier focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan as the areas in which Al-Qaeda is active. It has now become necessary to widen this to cover other countries that could form a new launch pad for terror attacks. Many Western analysts and officials have begun to point at Yemen as one of the areas for the launching of Al-Qaeda strikes. There are many justifications behind this. Firstly, the Yemeni government has become incapable of controlling vast swathes of territories within its borders that makes infiltration easy. Also tribal communities in Yemen sympathize with Al-Qaeda and hence provide it a safe haven. Besides, there are other factors – poverty, unemployment, corruption and arms trade – that strengthen the spread of Al-Qaeda.

There is also a fear that the US could put pressure on Yemen to accept security arrangements allowing American forces to act freely inside the country. This was hinted upon by the General Ali Alanisi, the head of Yemeni National Security Authority. He denied Yemen is turning into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and called the rumors “exaggeration based on political arguments and reminiscent of the attack on Yemen following September 11”. However, John Brennan said that the US does not intend to open a “new front” in its war on terror nor does it want to deploy forces in Yemen at the moment. He said that the country is only seeking to strengthen coordination with Sana’a in fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Eight years of global war on terror has taught us that merely focusing on the military and security aspects of terrorism would not yield results and may rather be counterproductive. This is because using force sometimes leads to loss of innocent lives which angers civilians and increases radical support base. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the best examples and Yemen will not be any different. Efforts to confront the spread of Al-Qaeda in Yemen must follow two parallel paths – the first is increasing security coordination with the Yemeni government without violating its sovereign rights and territories. The second is the material and logistical help to the Yemeni government so that it is able to confront the challenges ahead. This also includes backing a wider dialog between government and opposition forces in the North and the South so that the danger of Al-Qaeda is confronted. The standard of living among the Yemeni people should also be improved as they have been suffering from poverty and unemployment. The international conference on Yemen, to be held in London at the end of January, will be an important occasion to renew the commitment to help the country not only confront terrorism but also settle the internal conflicts that mar its development.