Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has evolved into an expanding regional terrorist network thanks in part to a weakened, impoverished and distracted Yemeni government.
While Yemen has chased two homegrown rebellions, over the last year the Qaeda cell here has begun sharing resources across borders and has been spurred on to more ambitious attacks by a leadership strengthened by released Qaeda detainees and returning fighters from Iraq.
The priorities of the Yemeni government have been fighting a war in the north and combating secessionists across the south. In the interim, Al-Qaeda has flourished in the lawless and rugged tribal territories, creating training camps, attacking Western targets and receiving popular sympathy, Yemeni and American officials say.
Its growing profile in Yemen became clear after a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was able to overstay his visa, connect with Qaeda men and leave the country with a bomb sewn into his underwear.
President Barack Obama blamed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for the bombing attempt and said fighting the group would be a high priority.
The core of the group here is still thought to be small, perhaps no more than 200 people. But the group has the important advantage of being part of a larger, regional structure, having merged a year ago with the Saudi branch to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Though Yemen played an early role in Al Qaeda’s history — it is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland — the key chapters in the story of Al-Qaeda’s rise here have been written recently by leaders who were released from detention at Guantánamo Bay, escaped from Yemeni prisons or were drawn to shelter here by common cause and ideology.
In the year since the Saudi and Yemeni branches merged, Al-Qaeda has taken full advantage of the government’s preoccupation with the rebellions, building support from the tribal structures and traditions.
Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College, said many of the nearly 2,000 Yemenis who were believed to have fought in Iraqi insurgencies had returned.
And many who went to Saudi Arabia to seek work — like bin Laden’s father — have had children who have been influenced by Saudi Arabia’s radical Islam, bringing ideas of jihad home.
There has also been an influx of at least 200,000 refugees from Somalia, according to official figures, and probably many more. Al-Qaeda has also been very active in Somalia.
“The Somalia problem is merging with the Yemeni issue,” Ranstorp said.
Al-Qaeda’s growth here has come as President Ali Abdullah Saleh has intensified the war in the north against Houthi rebels, who are Shiites with support from Iran, according to Yemeni officials and analysts.
Saleh’s second priority is a spreading secessionist movement in the south. “President Saleh’s first priority is to stay in power… And sometimes Al-Qaeda doesn’t even make the list at all,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, a political scientist at Sanaa University.
In that regard, American officials are finding an uncomfortable resemblance to their fight in Pakistan, where Qaeda’s leadership is believed to have sanctuary in rugged tribal areas while the government is preoccupied with its archrival India.