A DECADE after the epochal attacks of September 11, and three months after the killing of Osama bin Laden, America’s shadow war against terrorism appears to be slowly revealing a new front.
On Sunday, as the West remembers the thousands killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, a group of construction workers in the Arabian Peninsula will be hard at work on a secret CIA runway.
Its purpose? To heavily ramp up drone strikes in Yemen designed to target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda branch based in Yemen.
The reason? Virtually every attempted terrorist attack against the West by Salafist jihadis since 2009 has had some association with AQAP or an increasingly prominent Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.
AQAP is broadly recognised to be the most internationally active of the various al-Qaeda branches and is believed to have been involved in the 2009 attempted ”underpants” bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab, as well as the 2010 cargo bomb plot.
Increasing instability in Yemen as a result of the Arab Spring is also worrying Western governments, who fear that AQAP could become, in effect, the next Taliban, and Yemen the next Afghanistan.
Sarah Phillips, a lecturer at Sydney University’s Centre for International Security Studies, is a leading expert on AQAP and the political situation in Yemen. She says the chaos the country is enduring is not necessarily the gift to AQAP some analysts and media commentators say it is.
”There is a strong tendency among intelligence analysts and Western media commentators to see the turmoil in the Yemeni periphery as providing a likely victory for AQAP, but it is not as black and white as this. There’s many competing social forces and agendas and AQAP is one of these.”
As Dr Phillips points out, while AQAP has worked to craft a narrative that is appealing to a domestic Yemeni audience, it has sometimes appeared less than astute when trying to foist its brand of Salafist Islam on sections of Yemeni tribal society.
Earlier this year AQAP announced via a local radio station that the southern governate of Abyan had been declared an Islamic emirate.
Under their version of sharia law, they stated, women were not to leave their homes without a male relative and a form of identification. Their statement regarding women, however, overlooked the complexities of Abyan’s local landscape, particularly the fact that much of its farming economy relies upon female labour.
Dr Phillips’s view contrasts with the evaluation by the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland. ”Yemen is becoming an increasingly important hub for al-Qaeda associated terrorist activity,” he said this week. A steady number of Australians have also continued to travel to Yemen and become radicalised there. Last year an Australian woman, Shyloh Giddins, was imprisoned in the Yemeni capital Sana’a for a month after she was found to have been associating with Mr al-Awlaki..
Her name also appeared in a list revealed by WikiLeaks of 23 Australians alleged by ASIO to have demonstrated ties with AQAP or Mr al-Awlaki.
While many believe Mr al-Awlaki’s role in the global al-Qaeda jihad is overestimated, there is no doubt he has preached to a who’s who of jihadi attackers.
They include the US army officer responsible for the Fort Hood shootings, Major Nidal Hassan; underpants bomber Abdulmuttallab; and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
Disturbingly, Dr Phillips says that the most likely way for AQAP to gain further traction within Yemen is if the US steps up drone strikes against them, which would almost certainly cause further civilian casualties and provide Yemeni jihadis with a propaganda boon.
Worryingly, that appears to be exactly what the US is doing. The new runway and planned campaign will be run by the CIA, which has been increasing the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. About 2000 people have been killed by US drone strikes since 2001.
”It plays into AQAP’s rhetoric that they are pious Muslims defending their countrymen who are under attack by Western imperialists,” Dr Phillips says.
”It risks giving them some extra oxygen at a time when their tactics are being quite widely questioned within Yemen.”