Dec 29, 2009 | 10:26 GMT

4 mins read

An al Qaeda Node's Limited Strategic Significance

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed credit Monday for the Christmas Day attempted attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253 to Detroit. In a statement posted on a jihadist Web site, the Yemeni-based jihadist group lauded the attacker, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, calling him a "brother" and describing the attack as "heroic." That an al Qaeda node is once again targeting U.S. airliners has driven headlines in the mainstream media. But the Dec. 25 attempt does not rise to the strategic threat level suggested by such headlines. AQAP has set itself apart from other al Qaeda nodes in recent months, demonstrating more complex tactical operations that have relied heavily on tactical innovation and expert operational commanders. Attempts such as the one on Dec. 25 and an unusual attack against Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef highlighted that innovative spirit, though each ultimately failed. Tactically, AQAP has not proven to be a very effective threat. Its only successful attacks to date have been suicide bombings directed against tourists in Yemen's hinterlands. But even strategically, the group does not pose a coherent threat to Saudi Arabia, much less the United States. AQAP started as al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Its objective was to destabilize the Saudi government as part of al Qaeda’s larger strategic goal of creating an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East. After Riyadh cracked down on jihadists beginning in 2004, the group lost most of its ability to operate in Saudi Arabia. By January 2009, the remnants of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia were forced to relocate to Yemen, where they joined forces with al Qaeda in Yemen. This new group, AQAP, continued to pursue the goal of destabilizing the Saudi government, but it now faced the challenge of being hunted and the additional challenge of attempting to destabilize a government from which it was geographically isolated. Although the group had maintained this 'think big' mentality, they have lacked charismatic, strategic leaders. Unlike other al Qaeda regional franchises, AQAP has not focused on attacking local security forces, but instead has adopted the al Qaeda core group's targeting philosophy of attacking the "far enemy." AQAP has demonstrated that it is more focused on attacking foreign targets in Yemen, like the U.S. and British embassies or Saudi — and now American — targets outside Yemen, than it is in attacking the government of Yemen. Although the group had maintained this "think big" mentality, they have lacked charismatic, strategic leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri or operational commanders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who could successfully execute that strategic vision. Strategic and operational leaders are crucial to the successful operations of any terrorist group, as they translate the abstract into the concrete, applying tactical efforts to larger strategic ends. How effectively this translation is achieved is at the heart of any military or terrorist campaign. Tactical efforts without strategic guidance and objectives may well result in casualties, but ultimately have little hope of shifting the strategic balance in a given region, much less on a global scale. AQAP’s efforts to enter the global scene thus far appear to lack both tactical sophistication and strategic guidance. Military strikes in Yemen on Dec. 17 and 24 may well have killed AQAP's apex leadership, including those who planned the Dec. 25 attack. If this is the case, the group may have lost much of its ability to pose even a tactical threat.

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