SANAA, Yemen -- In the words of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, it was a plot that aimed to change history.
Intercepted communications between Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin’s successor as the head of al Qaida, and Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based franchise of the terrorist group, appeared to indicate an impending operation of mammoth proportions.
Usually staid European nations shuttered their embassies in Sanaa; the United States and the United Kingdom went as far as airlifting staff from the Yemeni capital. The American government launched airstrikes on the country, hitting 10 targets in five provinces in the span of 15 days. Spy planes hovered in Sanaa’s skies.
The apparent plot seemed a manifestation of the U.S. government’s greatest fears regarding the terrorist group that former CIA director David Petraeus once dubbed the “most dangerous node in the global jihad.”
But many Yemenis – ranging from tribesmen angered by the increase in drone activity to government officials offended by the tacit message of distrust sent by the U.S.’s and United Kingdom’s rapid pullouts – criticized Washington’s response as an overreaction.
The August incident underscored the sometimes-confusing nature of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, its goals and its real strength.
“They seem to be focusing on building a local base: They find a vacuum and they fill it,” Abdulghani al Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst, said of the group. “This makes them even more dangerous than they were before.”
For its part, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula appears to relish the spotlight. The group has released a series of written, video and audio statements in recent days, and analysts have said the scope of the group’s rhetoric underscores its wider ambitions.
The result of a 2009 merger of al Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is most notorious for its role in a botched attempt to blow up an American passenger airplane on Christmas Day of that year, with the “underwear bomber.” Yemen-based al Qaida operatives previously had launched numerous attacks on American targets, most notoriously the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and a 2008 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, before al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was formed.
The recent statements come in the aftermath of a bombing earlier this week that targeted a bus carrying members of the Yemeni air force to their base on the outskirts of Sanaa. Yemeni officials said they suspected that al Qaida operatives were behind the blast, which left one person dead and dozens wounded.
In addition, dozens of Yemeni military and security officers have been assassinated this year alone. The attacks range from assaults by motorcycle-riding gunmen to vehicle bombs broadly similar to Sunday’s attack; the government has largely blamed these other attacks on al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
There has yet to be any claim of responsibility for Sunday’s bombing, however, and it didn’t appear to be mentioned in recent remarks issued by the group.
“AQAP’s messages appear to be aimed at a broader international audience, rather than just at Yemeni themselves,” said Fernando Carvajal, a Sanaa-based Yemen analyst. “These types of attacks present a complex scenario. They appear disconnected from the messages published by AQAP.”