The United States Should Fear Al-Qaeda in Yemen More than ISIS

The situation in Iraq is troubling.  Radical al-Qaeda separatists have overrun the Iraqi army in Western Iraq and now control territory from Aleppo in Syria to within 100 miles of Baghdad in Iraq.  Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated over the weekend, “Iraq and Syria combined are going to be the staging area for the next 9/11 if we don’t do anything about it.”  The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS poses a serious threat to stable governments in the region as they wish to establish a state enforcing a strict interpretation of Sharia Law.  While ISIS has mentioned that they wish to attack the United States, their regional aspirations currently trump their global aspirations though ISIS’s leader is intent on globalizing his franchise.  Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, (AQAP) located in Yemen, poses a much more pertinent threat to the United States and has many times attempted to attack the United States homeland.

Ibrahim al-Asiri, a member of AQAP, has emerged as one of the most dangerous individuals in the world.  Radicalized by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Asiri joined al-Qaeda where he honed remarkable bomb-making skills.  Asiri’s bombs have been attributed to the failed attempt to assassinate a Saudi Arabian government official, successful attacks on UPS delivery trucks in the United Arab Emirates in 2009, the failed underwear bombing incident on a plane bound for the United States on Christmas day 2009, and another foiled attempt to blow up a cargo jet headed for Chicago in 2009.  The only reason the Chicago cargo jet plot was foiled was due to a Saudi intelligence agent who defected and had penetrated AQAP, otherwise, it is unclear what events would have transpired.

Though many of Asiri’s major attacks have been unsuccessful, he continues to refine his skills and modernize his methods.  Asiri’s bombs are becoming more and more undetectable by officials.  The underwear bomb had zero metal parts, which allowed the Nigerian individual who attempted to carry out the attack to board the plane.  “Sewn into custom-made underwear, it would have been hard to detect during a pat-down,” reported the BBC.  The device that was built for the foiled plot involving a cargo plane bound for Chicago was “so sophisticated that it was initially cleared by military and police explosives experts.”  The bomb was apparently scheduled to detonate over the United States.

Even more troubling, Asiri has begun to teach his methods to others.  Terrorism expert Bruce Riedel believes, “That enemy [AQAP] is gaining ground at home where a master bomb maker is teaching his workshop on how to build more,” and plots such as the underwear bombing indicate, “we have an enemy in Yemen that is determined to strike the American homeland,” Riedel stated, which is more than can be said for ISIS at the moment. It is also believed that Asiri is “an expert in preparing poisons,” according to BBC reporting.

Yemen has been one of the most active regions of the American drone campaign and American officials have stated that AQAP poses the greatest threat to America of all the numerous splinter groups.  Asiri has been targeted many times by US officials but he has not been confirmed to have been killed.  He was thought to have been killed during the strike that killed American AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.  In a barrage of strikes that took place this spring, which was reported to have killed over 60 al-Qaeda militants in Yemen by US drones, Asiri was thought to be one of the dead.  However, DNA testing revealed Asiri could not be confirmed as a casualty.

ISIS is no longer an official branch of al-Qaeda meaning there should be no collaboration between groups like AQAP and ISIS, though al-Qaeda’s leader Aymen al-Zawahiri has supposedly offered an “olive branch” to ISIS’s leader should he shift his efforts exclusively to Iraq.  For groups within the greater al-Qaeda network, Asiri’s teachings may reach other regions such as al-Shabaab in Somalia.  ISIS’s exclusion from al-Qaeda excludes them from such practices making them less threatening, if that is possible.  The future of AQAP is extremely dangerous and they have made clear that they want to attack the United States homeland.  Undetectable explosive devices are only going to improve and US counterterrorism officials will need to continue to keep close watch on Asiri and AQAP, which may be difficult given the gains ISIS’ has made on the ground recently.  ISIS is most definitely a threat to US interests in the future and should not be overlooked at present, but for the time being, AQAP still poses the most imminent threat to American security.