U.S., U.N. Target Al-Qaeda in Yemen As Senate Report Warns That American Converts May Be Training There
The key move announced Tuesday was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to add al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to the list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” a designation under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
AQAP, a merger of Yemen- and Saudi-based terrorists whose launch was made public a year ago, joins 43 other organizations, 29 of them Islamic, already on the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) list. They include al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the North Africa-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The designation was published in the Federal Register on Tuesday and announced in a statement by Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley. The Federal Register notice shows that Clinton made the designation decision on December 14, however, before the failed Christmas Day 2009 plane bombing for which AQAP claimed responsibility.
According to the State Department, once a target for FTO designation is identified, “a detailed ‘administrative record’ is prepared demonstrating that the statutory criteria for designation have been satisfied.”
Clinton’s notice designating AQAP said the decision was based on a review of the administrative record that had been compiled about the organization, and taken in consultation with the U.S. attorney general and the treasury secretary.
In his statement, Crowley cited three terror attacks for which AQAP had claimed responsibility – the Christmas Day bombing attempt, a March 2009 suicide bombing targeting South Korean tourists in Yemen, and an unsuccessful attempt last August to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s top security official. (The suicide bomber who targeted Nayef had a PETN-based bomb hidden in his underwear – a similar modus operandi to that allegedly used by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the failed Christmas Day attack.)
In another step announced Tuesday, Clinton designated AQAP, its leader Nasir al-Wahishi (Wuhayshi), and deputy leader Said Ali al-Shihri under executive order 13224, a post-9/11 measure that aims to disrupt funding to terrorists by prohibiting Americans from engaging in transactions with them, and freezes any assets they may have in the U.S.
Al-Wahishi, who reportedly served as Osama bin Laden’s secretary prior to 2003, took over as head of al-Qaeda in Yemen after its former leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was killed by a missile fired from an unmanned U.S. drone in 2002.
Al-Wahishi was later captured, but he was one of 23 men – among them 12 convicted al-Qaeda members including a man sentenced to death for the USS Cole bombing – who escaped from a Yemeni prison in early 2006.
In a video and statement released last January al-Wahishi was named as head of the newly-formed AQAP merger.
The same video named as AQAP deputy al-Shihri, a Saudi who was detained by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay from early 2002 until 2007, when he was released to Saudi custody. He went through a Saudi government “rehabilitation” program – which is overseen by Nayef – before moving to Yemen.
This week, the Yemeni government said that al-Shihri had been arrested after trying to run a security roadblock.
But in a development that will do little to inspire confidence in Yemen’s efforts against terrorism, the report was retracted Tuesday, with officials telling Yemeni media the man captured was another “militant” with the same surname.
In another measure targeting AQAP on Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council’s committee responsible for al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctions added the organization as well as al-Wahishi and al-Shihri as individuals to its blacklist.
According to the State Department, the move will require all U.N. member states to implement an asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo against them.
Senate report warns of Americans in Yemen
Tuesday’s announcements came as a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee report focusing on al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia warned that more than 40 American converts to Islam now living in Yemen could pose a threat.
The report said up to 36 former prisoners who had converted while behind bars and moved to Yemen after their release “ostensibly to study Arabic.” In addition it cited “nearly 10 non-Yemeni Americans who traveled to Yemen, converted to Islam, became fundamentalists, and married Yemeni women so they could remain in the country.”
The report said U.S. law enforcement officials had told committee staff members that although there was no public evidence of any terrorist activity by the former convicts, several of them had “dropped off the radar for weeks at a time.” There were concerns that the Americans had been “radicalized in prison and traveled to Yemen for training.”
U.S. officials were “on heightened alert because of the potential threat from extremists carrying American passports and the related challenges involved in detecting and stopping homegrown operatives.”
The report also referred to the New Mexico-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now based in Yemen, who has been linked to the U.S. Army major accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas last November.
“Although Awlaki has not yet been accused of a crime, U.S. intelligence and military officials consider him to be a direct threat to U.S. interests,” it said.