Not long ago, most Americans had scarcely heard of Yemen, the arid, Texas-size country in the southern corner of the Arabian peninsula.
But on Friday, as news emerged of a plot to send explosives in courier packages from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago, the world’s attention was focused once again on the threats brewing in Yemen’s lawless, strife-torn hinterlands, where American citizens appear to be helping the local branch of al Qaeda take aim at the US.
It was the second time in less than a year: on December 25, a Nigerian trained in Yemen tried to detonate a bomb on a commercial flight as it approached Detroit, and al Qaeda took credit for the attempt. The American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had been in contact with the would-be bomber, and some analysts believe the latest effort may also be linked to Awlaki, a charismatic preacher who remains in hiding in Yemen.
In recent months, American intelligence officials have grown increasingly concerned about Yemen, despite a renewed cooperation on counterterrorism with the Yemeni authorities in the past year. Al Qaeda’s regional arm in Yemen has become more active since the spring, and has killed several dozen Yemeni soldiers and policemen.
Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch does not consider the US a key target, analysts say. The group has tried repeatedly to strike at Saudi Arabia, and says it aims to topple the Yemeni and Saudi governments.
But attacking the US draws broader publicity, and may be helpful with recruiting. Al Qaeda’s regional arm claimed a suicide attack on the American Embassy in Sana in September 2008 that killed 16 people.
Although al Qaeda has not claimed credit for the packages that were bound for Chicago, this latest episode “is a reminder that we have a serious problem brewing in Yemen, and the current counterterrorism measures have not been able to stop it,” said Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University.