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Yemen packages: Is Al Qaeda focusing on small-scale attacks?

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the failed Christmas Day bomb attempt last year. US authorities believe the terrorist group is focusing on small-scale attacks against the West.

By Staff writer / October 30, 2010

Yemeni security forces outside a branch of the package delivery firm FedEx in Sanaa on Saturday October 3o. Yemen launched a probe after explosives were found in air parcels sent to US synagogues from its territory by suspected Al-Qaeda militants.

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This week's package bomb attempt, if it was hatched by Al Qaeda, lends support to the notion that the terrorist group is focusing on relatively simple and even small-scale attacks in its efforts to fight America and the West.

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Authorities said that parcel bombs bound from Yemen were addressed to two Jewish places of worship in Chicago, although the bombs may have been intended to explode aboard cargo planes and bring them down. The British newspaper the Guardian reported Saturday that one of the devices was linked to a cell phone, while the other was attached to a timer. In any case, the threat is very different in scale and complexity from the 9/11 attacks nine years ago, in which nearly 3,000 people died.

Yet on Saturday, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the evidence is consistent with the idea that Al Qaeda may be behind this latest terror threat.

'All the hallmarks of Al Qaeda'

"I think we would agree with that, that it does contain all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda and in particular Al Qaeda AP," the group's Arabian Peninsula affiliate, Ms. Napolitano said in an interview on ABC News.

The Obama administration has been increasingly focused on the Al Qaeda affiliate, and on Yemen as a high-risk breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Authorities have said Al Qaeda AP was behind the failed Christmas Day bomb attempt last year by a Nigerian airline passenger with explosives hidden in his underwear.

In broadcast interviews Saturday, Napolitano said the parcel bombs appear to include the same explosive used in the Christmas Day attempt, pentaerythritol trinitrate or PETN.

If the latest terrorist plots are less spectacular than 9/11, or the failed 2006 Heathrow plot against several trans-Atlantic jetliners, that doesn't mean that Al Qaeda has become less dangerous, terrorism experts say.

Waging traditional urban warfare

Rather, Al Qaeda may have pivoted and be "slowly raising a new army designed to wage traditional urban warfare," Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations said recently, in a commentary co-authored with Jonathan Stevenson of the US Naval War College.

Writing in the Washington Post earlier this month, they pointed to recent attacks such as the commando style raid targeting Hindus in Mumbai in 2008, a failed Times Square car-bombing in New York this spring, and the recent terror alert regarding possible machine-gun attacks against groups of US tourists in Europe.

"There are indications that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are growing less attached to the kinds of spectacular attacks they once seemed to prefer," a US official told Reuters Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're looking more and more to less sophisticated, less costly, and perhaps less detectable operations."

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