Arrests in US, Yemen sharpen focus on 'homegrown terrorism'
Recent arrests in New York, Texas, and Yemen could support the trend of Americans heading abroad for terrorism training. But do the US and Yemen have conflicting security interests?
Washington — A string of recent arrests – both in the US and in the Arabian Peninsula country of Yemen – suggest how ungoverned expanses from Somalia to Yemen’s deserts are seeing increased Al Qaeda activity.
If the arrests also end up confirming heightened activity by American citizens in extremist activities, they would also buttress US intelligence and counterterrorism officials’ intensified focus on so-called “homegrown terrorism.”
US officials on Monday confirmed the arrest of a dozen Americans in Yemen. Last week Yemeni officials reported the arrests of foreigners as part of a Yemeni roundup of individuals suspected of taking part in a surge of Al Qaeda planning and organizational activity in the desert country over recent months.
Those arrests, which come as the US provides Yemen with millions of dollars in counterterrorist assistance, follow the indictment June 3 of a Texas man the FBI believes was trying to deliver money and materials to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The FBI says the Texas man, Barry Bujol Jr., had been under investigation since 2008, over which time he had communicated by e-mail with the American-born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki seeking advice on how to contribute to “jihad.”
Mr. Bujol, who was arrested May 30 as he boarded a ship in a Texas port, is accused of seeking to deliver money and devices including GPSs and cell phone chips to AQAP – the same organization that claimed a role in the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.
On Saturday, two New Jersey men were arrested at Kennedy International Airport in New York as they sought to board a flight to Egypt on their way to Somalia. Federal authorities said the men, under investigation since 2006, hoped to join Al Shabab, the Somalian extremist group aligned with Al Qaeda.
At the State Department Monday, spokesman Philip Crowley refused to discuss specifics of the arrests in Yemen of American citizens, confirmed last week by Yemeni security forces. But Mr. Crowley used the topic of what he said were 12 arrested Americans to praise US-Yemeni cooperation in the counterterrorism field.
“Together, we are doing our best to help Yemen reduce the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said. “That’s a threat to Yemen. It’s a threat to the United States.”
But some experts in Yemen and US counterterrorism efforts say the somewhat mixed signals coming out of the two capitals suggest the diverging interests in addressing the various factors challenging Yemen’s government.
“It seems the two sides may be reading off a slightly different script,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and doctoral candidate in Near East studies at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Counterterrorism means different things to different people, and I think we’re seeing that play out in the different groups the Yemeni government and the US are most interested in targeting.”
The US may be interested in weakening AQAP, and that may be the intended target of the $155 million the US Defense Department has recently approved for fighting the Yemen-based organization. But Mr. Johnsen says the Yemeni government’s focus is more the southern secessionists and Houthi rebels that challenge it.
“The US has a narrow focus on Al Qaeda, but the Yemenis have no problem with taking the material and training intended by the US for ‘counterterrorism activity’ and using it in dealing with some of these other challenges,” Johnsen says. “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is not the existential threat the Yemeni government sees in some of these other groups and problems.”
Charles Dunbar, a former US ambassador to Yemen now at Boston University, says that a healthy skepticism is in order concerning the Americans reportedly arrested until more information is divulged about them.
“Were these really Americans involved with Al Qaeda as [the US] seems to be suggesting, or was this some kind of put-up job on the part of the Yemenis to suggest to Washington that the government is doing its bidding?” he says. “We have to remember that the one group the Yemenis would like to ignore [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is the one we are most interested in.”
Princeton’s Johnsen says recent US activity in Yemen – including a stepped-up campaign of drone attacks, one of which reportedly killed a Yemeni official instead of an intended Al Qaeda target – is making more than just Yemeni officials nervous.
“This growing US campaign has short-term benefits but significant and long-term costs. All of this is being utilized very well by Al Qaeda,” Johnsen says, adding that the unintended product of the drone attacks “will be an Al Qaeda that instead of recruiting in the hundreds is able to recruit in the thousands.”