CIA analysts now regard al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a more urgent threat to U.S. security than the core al Qaida group in Pakistan, according to a report in the Washington Post. Administration officials said the changes result in large part from Predator strikes that have decimated al Qaida operations in Pakistan.
AQAP is also regarded as more agile and aggressive, evidenced by the organization's success in getting alleged suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab onboard a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day. Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born jihadist imam, has played a major role in turning the group into a transnational terrorist threat. U.S. officials say there are recent indications that AQAP has shared its chemical bomb-making technology with other radical groups including al-Shabaab.
The Post story quotes Philip Mudd, formerly a senior CIA and FBI official, as stating that "sheer numbers" suggest "that one of the plots in the United States will succeed."
U.S. efforts against AQAP have been hampered by the failure to use armed drones to target Yemen-based terrorists. Officials said the drones have not been used there because they were more urgently needed in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, strikes with less accurate weapons like cruise missiles have been used to target AQAP militants in Yemen, raising the likelihood of hitting non-combatants there.
Officials said that since an air strike narrowly missed Awlaki in December, they have had few clues about his location. In addition to the attempted bombing on Christmas, the jihadist cleric has been linked with numerous attacks and terrorist plots against the United States, including the Fort Hood massacre and attempted Times Square bombing.
"The other leaders of AQAP are predominantly Yemenis and Saudis, and their worldview and focus is on the [Arabian] peninsula," a senior counterterrorism official said. Awlaki "brings a worldview and focus that brings it back here to the U.S. homeland."