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The site of a drone strike on the road between Yafe and Radfan districts of the southern Yemeni province of Lahj on August 11.
STRINGER
The site of a drone strike on the road between Yafe and Radfan districts of the southern Yemeni province of Lahj on August 11.

Yemen plot highlights need for new US strategy

Critics say the Obama administration's counter-terror policies are contradictory, in the wake of last week's alleged Al Qaeda terror plot. Analysis from Taimur Khan in New York

NEW YORK // Last week as 19 US diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa were closed because of an alleged Al Qaeda terror plot, critics of the US president, Barack Obama, seized quickly on what they said was a contradiction in his administration's counter-terror policies.

If, as administration officials have claimed in recently, Al Qaeda is a sapped force and the "war on terror" as we know it is coming to an end, why was such drastic action taken?

In their defence, US intelligence officials made it known that the intercepted communication that triggered the closure of US diplomatic missions was a message from the head of Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate to the group's overall head, Ayman Al Zawahiri.

In the message, according to the officials, Nasser Al Wuhayshi did not agree to carry out an attack concocted and ordered by the Al Qaeda leader, believed to be in Pakistan. Instead, he asked Mr Al Zawahiri's blessing for an attack he had planned.

For supporters of Mr Obama, that disclosure could not have come at a more propitious moment. It bolstered administration claims that, despite the terror alert, the veteran Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan has been severely weakened and lacks command-and-control over faraway affiliates.

According to security experts, the most significant change in capability that the Yemen plot revealed - if the leaked intelligence intercept is true - is that Al Qaeda affiliates have the technology to communicate electronically in near real time, said Thomas Hegghammer, the director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo.

"But one conference call doesn't make an attack," he said. "That is not the same as they have the ability to coordinate operations at the sort of level of sophistication that was seen in preparation for 9/11."

Yet even though the controversy it sparked has subsided, the disrupted plot underscores the new, more complex threat that has emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring and the weakening of Al Qaeda's base in Afghanistan, analysts have said.

Extremist groups, some with links to the old Al Qaeda, others simply inspired by it, have found fertile ground in the Arab Spring countries, as democratic transitions have stalled and economies continued to fray, said Thomas Sanderson, the director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The counter-terrorism strategy honed by the Obama administration relied primarily on covert military operations, such as drone strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. These tactics were particularly effective in disrupting Al Qaeda in Pakistan, where its members, mostly foreign Arabs, hid among a non-Arab local population. But these methods have proven less effective against groups who blend in to the communities around them.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) is the most formidable of these organisations, and the only one believed capable of targeting the US. Its membership has grown even as the US killed several of its leaders with drone strikes and assisted the Yemeni military in pushing the group out of territory it held in southern Yemen, said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University and the author of a book on Aqap.

That expansion caused one legislator earlier this year to ask whether the administration's counter-terrorism policies were outdated.

"If the cancer of Al Qaeda is metastasising, do we need a new treatment?" Senator Susan Collins asked CIA director John Brennan at a congressional hearing this year.

In May, in a speech at the National Defence University in Washington, Mr Obama hinted at the need to rethink US counter-terror policies.

"We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root and, in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or special forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating," he said.

While the recent drone strikes in Yemen showed that the administration could act quickly against an imminent threat that is not necessarily proof that it has a viable strategy to reduce the causes of extremism, said a former Pentagon official and security expert at CSIS.

"What is far less clear is that this US strategy has gone from the conceptual level to a realistic effort to implement it," Anthony Cordesman wrote in a July report on Yemen.

There are many hurdles to implementing a new kind of counter-terrorism strategy that is not measured mainly by body counts.

"Can you convince Congress to do the more convoluted, softer side of counter-terrorism when it's a lot easier to sell special ops assaults as being effective than you can poverty reduction?" said Mr Sanderson.

"The political incentives all go in the direction of continuing to hit people with drone strikes and doing all the things we've been doing, and that's what worries me," said Paul Pillar, a former intelligence official.

"There's no way any leader can say, once an event happens, 'Well, this is one of the ones we didn't catch'."

Yet as the examples of Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate, the ability of Washington to shape local politics through programmes aimed at building state institutions and encouraging economic development is limited, experts have said.

The US has earmarked US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) for Yemen since 2011, with $250 million for fighting terrorism and the rest for strengthening state institutions. Nevertheless, Aqap was still viewed as strong enough to trigger the closure US diplomatic missions.

"The US can provide some forms of expertise and security assistance, it can provide limited aid in governance and economic reform, but there will be no quick solutions," Mr Cordesman wrote.

Another obstacle for Mr Obama's vision for a new counter-terrorism strategy is the massive counter-terrorism bureaucracy that has grown accustomed to military tactics rather than underlying political and societal causes.

"Critics are measuring the effect of drones in Aqap's size on the ground in Yemen and they see that it hasn't reduced the size of the organisation," said Mr Hegghammer.

"But for the CT [counter-terrorism] strategist sitting in Virginia, it doesn't matter how large Aqap is if it's unable to attack the homeland."

The spectre of the September 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including the ambassador, likely led the state department to close so many embassies, the analysts said.

The Benghazi attack has made it even more difficult to implement a counter-terrorism strategy that doesn't rely on "red meat", Mr Sanderson said.

In the meantime, on web forums Aqap supporters were praising what they called its "psychological" victory. "The mobilisation and security precautions are costing them billions of dollars. We hope to hear more of such psychological warfare, even if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground," said one forum comment.

tkhan@thenational.ae

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