Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Muslim man who allegedly sought the mid-air explosion of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas, could have found his motivations for carrying out the attack almost anywhere.
Mr. Abdulmutallab, who Al Qaeda in Yemen says was working at their behest, could have found exhortations to violent jihad on the Internet, which is filled with chat rooms and websites praising suicide bombers; in mosque-based discussion groups in London, where he attended school for four years and where a small coterie of militant preachers still whisper into young ears excited about joining a glorious cause; or from a preacher in his home country of Nigeria.
But inspiration is one thing. The explosives and jerry-rigged detonator with which he allegedly tried to kill himself and all 288 passengers and crew aboard the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit are harder to come by. Now, investigators are focusing on where and how he obtained the wherewithal to attempt his attack, and all early signs are pointing to Yemen.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an organization with roots in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and with ties to senior Al Qaeda figures like Osama bin Laden, believed to be currently residing in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack on a jihad website that has been used as a conduit for militant propaganda in the past. The Middle East Media Research Institute translated the claim as saying, in part: "The hero ... martyrdom-seeker, brother Omar Al-Farooq, carried out a quality operation on an American plane ... in (an operation) which broke through all modern advanced technological equipment and security barriers in world airports."
The group also claimed that Abdulmutallab was dispatched in revenge for recent US-backed attacks on their operatives, which includes a Yemeni assault in Shebwa on Christmas Eve that the country claimed killed 30 Al Qaeda operatives. That seems unlikely, since Abdulmutallab is believed to have departed Yemen in early December. But that supporters in Yemen of what Mr. bin Laden and his closest aide Ayman al-Zawahiri have dubbed the "global jihad against crusaders and Jews" are feeling under US pressure is not in doubt. The US increased military aid to the troubled regime of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to $70 million this year.
Though Abdulmutallab is Nigerian, his mother is from Yemen. Foreign Policy Magazine's latest "Failed States Index" named Yemen as particularly troubling, arguing that "many worry ... [Yemen] is the next Afghanistan: a global problem wrapped in a failed state.” The magazine also said that “refugees and extremists were perhaps Yemen’s most noteworthy imports in 2008" and that "Saudi Al Qaeda members, viewing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh as too weak to prevent them from organizing and training, have also poured in."
Yemen has a roughly 700 mile-long border with Saudi Arabia and close cultural and religious ties to the oil-rich kingdom. Bin Laden's father was a Yemeni immigrant to Saudi Arabia before World War 1, and the country's lawless northern frontier has long been a weapons transit point for Islamist militants fighting the Saudi monarchy.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is believed to be led by the Yemeni Nasir Wuhaishi. The group was created in early 2008 with an announcement that the loosely knit organization's Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches leaderships were being merged.
Since then, in addition to their claim of responsibility for the failed Northwest Airlines attack, they've been involved in a number of attacks. Most intriguingly, the group claimed responsibility for a failed August assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's point man for dismantling Al Qaeda. His would-be assassin posed as a former militant seeking to come in from the cold and arranged a meeting with Prince Nayef. He concealed a bomb that was constructed of PETN, and placed a crude detonator in his underwear. That was the same plastic explosive and method of concealment Abdulmutallab allegedly used.
Some American politicians have speculated that there may be a link between the alleged Nigerian bomber and Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and Yemen-based cleric who appeared to inspire Major Abdul Malik Hasan, the Army doctor accused of murdering 13 of his comrades at Fort Hood in November. Mr. Awlaki was a recent target of a US-backed air strike in Yemen, and until recently ran a popular website urging Sunni Muslims to fight the US, Israel, and other perceived enemies of Islam, and was an e-mail correspondent of Major Hasan's. No evidence has yet emerged that Abdulmutallab was in contact with Awlaki, though Yemen's Foreign Ministry says that he was in the country from early August to early December on a visa to study Arabic in Sanaa, the capital.
Mr. Awlaki claimed on his now-defunct blog that he had been a lecturer at Iman University in Sanaa.
PETN is a widely available explosive, used by world armies and mining companies, usually as an ingredient in plastic explosives like Semtex or in detonation cords. Yemen has long been a major trading and transit hub for weapons. In the summer of 2002, an accidental explosion at a Sanaa warehouse led to the discovery of 650 pounds of Semtex that Yemeni authorities alleged at the time were in the possession of Al Qaeda-linked militants.
As for Abdulmutallab, the recent plot sheds light on an often overlooked fact: While President Barack Obama said in December that "I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda" – most recent international attacks have emanated from elsewhere.