Al-Qaida, affiliates show greater coordination
More than a week after officials in Britain and Dubai discovered package bombs bound for the United States, investigators are getting a clearer sense of the foiled plot.
Scotland Yard announced Wednesday that the bomb found at England's East Midlands Airport was about six hours away from detonation. British officials said they believed the package was supposed to explode somewhere over the East Coast of the United States.
As U.S. officials sift through the evidence not just in the U.K. but in Dubai where a second package was discovered they are becoming increasingly convinced that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group known as AQAP that claimed responsibility for the plot, wasn't working alone.
Investigators say al-Qaida's core leadership in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan appears to have had a hand in the foiled attack. One reason to suspect as much: The plot was just too sophisticated for AQAP to pull off on its own.
"AQAP has shown itself to be more deviously and fiendishly clever," said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's security studies program. "I don't think it is beyond the realm of possibility that AQAP cooked this up and then had the wherewithal to look for the expertise to make this possible."
U.S. officials say they have seen an increase in communication between al-Qaida's core leadership and these semi-autonomous affiliate groups. They say it appears to be part of a broader strategy from al-Qaida central to establish closer ties to affiliates than ever before.
The leadership has been sending messengers to its various groups so they can provide strategic guidance and real-world expertise that regional affiliates might lack.
Officials say that's what they think happened in this latest plot.
Consider al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which burst on the scene as al-Qaida's most active affiliate about a year ago.
Last summer, one of its operatives tried to kill the head of Saudi intelligence. He was carrying a bomb inside his body so that he could get the explosives past security. He managed to blow himself up, but the Saudi intelligence chief survived.
Last Christmas, the group tried to bring down a U.S. trans-Atlantic airliner as it neared Detroit. That bomb, tucked into the underwear of a young Nigerian, failed to go off properly. AQAP claimed responsibility for both attacks.
'More Hands On'
U.S. officials tell NPR that they suspect those failures motivated al-Qaida's leadership to become more hands on. Hoffman says al-Qaida central is trying to be a good boss.
"A good manager also knows when to step in and provide the top-down guidance and take an idea off the drawing board and implement it," he said. "They were doing some of that before, but I think there used to be much less of it."
U.S. officials say the man in charge of that task is an Egyptian named Saif al-Adel. A longtime member of core al-Qaida, he was linked to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He fled to Iran a short time after 9/11 and had been in a kind of protective house arrest just outside Tehran for more than nine years.
He was swapped, along with a handful of other al-Qaida operatives, for an Iranian diplomat held captive by al-Qaida back in April.
Not long after he returned to al-Qaida's core, U.S. intelligence officials noticed a changing relationship between the leadership in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan and al-Qaida's affiliates.
Among other things, there has been a push to make affiliates work more closely together. Since last spring, the coordination between AQAP and another group called al-Shabab, which is al-Qaida's arm in Somalia, has markedly increased, the officials said. They have been sharing personnel, ammunition and training in a way they had not before.
"The affiliates, most of which are regionally focused are now seeing some of the advantages of coordinating amongst themselves," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Now you are seeing them be more aggressive and what they are getting is a return on their investment," he said. "They are seeing individuals they recruit increase, their international profiles increase, and it is serving their purposes quite well because, ultimately, it is helping them with their regional grievances."
The increasing coziness between al-Qaida's Yemeni and Somali affiliates has U.S. officials particularly worried because dozens of U.S. residents joined al-Shabab over the past couple of years. One of their key commanders is an American from Daphne, Ala.. Dozens of Somali-Americans from Minneapolis have also joined al-Shabab to fight African Union and government forces in Somalia.
Many of those travelers carry U.S. passports, so officials worry they could slip back into the United States to launch an attack.
That was less of a worry when al-Shabab was focused on the fight in Somalia. But now that the group has joined hands with al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, officials see those foreign recruits as more of a threat.