The disruption of the bomb plot from Yemen, details of which continue to leak into the press, is good news (setting aside the wisdom of the unplugged leaking). The last time authorities stopped a bomb plot out of Yemen, the attack was already underway and there was a last-minute scramble to find the cleverly disguised bombs. This time around, it seems that the bomb was turned in to authorities. But that begs the questions: Are there more bombs? And more importantly, why let the bombmakers operate in the first place?
There will be more bombs. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group responsible for at least three attempted attacks on the United States, has proven that it will continue to try to attack America.
Why give the bombmakers free rein? The simple answer is we have little choice. AQAP’s leadership is only partially dismantled and it has significant safe havens in Yemen. The group’s chief bombmaker, Ibrahim al Asiri, is reportedly no longer building bombs. Instead, he’s passed along his expertise – and if reports about the technology in the recent explosive device are true – quite effectively. This production of a new group of operatives underscores a key problem in targeting the leaders: terrorist organizations regenerate leadership.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta clearly outlined America’s counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen yesterday. The U.S., he said, will continue to go after the leadership and those planning attacks against Americans and the Yemenis will pursue and “make efforts” to reduce AQAP’s influence in Yemen. To date, Yemeni efforts have had little success in actually reducing AQAP’s space in the country.
The United States is caught in a vicious circle: We have been somewhat successful in targeting AQAP’s leadership. But AQAP is breeding leaders faster than we can kill them. And we can’t kill them faster as long as they have safe havens. So the key is on the ground in Yemen, where we have little presence, little leverage, and unreliable allies. So expect the attempted attacks to continue.