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Tomorrow's war

Terrorism | Yemen becomes new ground zero on terror following Northwest bombing attempt

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

When a 23-year-old Nigerian man tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane filled with 300 passengers during final descent into Detroit on Christmas Day, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist proved an important point: Less talk of terrorism won't produce fewer attacks by terrorists.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra-the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and a congressman from Michigan-said the Obama administration had tried to "downplay the threat from terrorism" over the last year by speaking of it less. He added: "In reality, it's getting much more complex."

The complexity reaches to Yemen, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab lived from August until December. The failed airline bomber told authorities that al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen gave him the explosive device for the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight and taught him how to use it. A Yemen-based group called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack and produced a photo of Abdulmutallab.

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AQAP also was involved in an attempted bombing that targeted Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef last August. In that incident, the explosives were apparently concealed in the bomber's rectum, allowing the bomber to pass through airport security similarly to Abdulmutallab, while in this case, the device killed the bomber but only slightly injured the prince.

"Yemen is the new Afghanistan," said Richard Clarke, chief counterterrorism adviser under both Bush administrations as well as the Clinton administration. Already U.S. forces had stepped up airstrikes against AQAP targets in Yemen. One such attack, which took place less than 24 hours before the Northwest incident, killed more than 50 al-Qaeda militants and reportedly targeted, among others, Anwar al-Awalaki, the radical Yemeni-American cleric with ties to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter who killed 13 at Fort Hood last November.

"Iraq was yesterday's war. Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war. That's the danger we face," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

Further complicating the picture, as of mid-December Yemenis accounted for 97 of the 210 detainees remaining at Guantanamo. Even Democrats say the attempted attack aboard the Northwest flight will force the Obama administration to reconsider its plans for repatriating the detainees: "I'd, at a minimum, say that whatever we were about to do we'd at least have to scrub it again from top to bottom," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told Politico.

Yemen Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi estimated the country is a base for several hundred al-Qaeda operatives who could be planning another attack. He called for more U.S. help in dismantling the network.

President Barack Obama called for a review of airline security measures after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano backtracked from remarks that the security system had worked.

Security experts wondered how Abdulmutallab managed to avoid scrutiny before boarding an American-bound plane: The terrorist's father warned authorities his son could be a threat. The U.S. State Department placed Abdulmutallab on a watch list but didn't revoke his visa. And the bomber bought a $2,800 plane ticket with cash but didn't give contact information. Later, he boarded the plane with only a backpack for an international trip, apparently planning never to return.
-with reporting by Mindy Belz

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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