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November 4th, 2010, by Janusian Security Risk Management

Janusian Security Risk Management

On 29th October, reports emerged that two packages containing explosives and addressed to Chicago synagogues had been dispatched from Yemen on cargo flights. Both packages were located and made safe by security officials in Dubai and the UK. Both the devices were viable bombs.

Yemeni security offers arrested a woman who they believed sent the packages but she has subsequently been released. It is now seems almost certain that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was responsible for the attempted attacks. The perpetrators of the incident are still at large.

In the coming days, Western governments will enact further security measures in an attempt to contain the threat to aviation from Al-Qaeda affiliates. But AQAP’s relatively unfettered existence in Yemen continues to pose a international threat. It seems that the group currently lacks the resources to maintain any significant tempo for international operations. It has carried out two attacks in 10 months, both of which are sophisticated and ambitious, but relatively small scale in their execution. We do not anticipate it rapidly developing capability to increase the frequency of attacks of this sort. But AQAP evidently does have the means to be creative and to seek out weak links in security measures in pursuit of a spectacular attack. That is why its leader Nasirr al-Wuhaishi has been singled out by President Obama singled as ‘planning attacks against our homeland, our citizens and our friends and allies.’

The Yemeni government declared ‘open war’ on AQAP on 14th January in an attempt to eradicate the group’s safe havens. The US has provided substantial support through training, military equipment and drone attacks. The counter-terrorism campaign continues. Most recently, Yemeni forces completed a military offensive in Shabwa province in the south of the country, but with limited success. The government suffers from a lack of support and influence outside of Sana’a, which makes counterinsurgency operations extremely challenging. Although AQAP has suffered casualties in the offensive, its core leadership remains intact and intent on conducting attacks against the West. AQAP enjoys protection from a small number of Yemeni tribes, especially in the south, affording it a safe haven from which it can plan attacks. Most sources suggest that the group retains a membership of approximately 200 people, many of whom are based in Abyan.

The Yemen-based radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki is of particular concern to counter-terrorism officials because he preaches in English and urges attacks in the West. Some credible reports suggest that Awlaki is responsible for an embryonic AQAP operational presence in Western countries. If these predictions become reality, AQAP will no longer need to rely upon long range operations. While last-minute Saudi intelligence disrupted the latest plot, and al-Awlaki is reportedly due to be detained by the Yemeni authorities, AQAP once again demonstrated its capability to design bombs capable of by-passing security measures. The group remains intent on conducting attacks, and is developing its presence. It will unquestionably continue to search for vulnerabilities in the security of Western targets.

The alarming ease with which aviation security measures were circumvented by AQAP highlights the significant imbalances in their application and stringency from state-to-state, carrier-to-carrier and between passenger and cargo traffic. Yemen’s inability to provide effective domestic security appears to have introduced a critical vulnerability in an international supply chain. That door has been closed by the decision to disallow unaccompanied cargo from Yemen and Somalia, but the underlying inadequacies remain.

The most recent events come amid a debate within the European aviation industry about the utility of existing, rigorous passenger-screening measures. He highlighted the tendency of Western security authorities to introduce reactive and piecemeal security measures, apply them unevenly and forget to stand them down when they become redundant. We expect to see more of that in the coming weeks and months, but this time in cargo security.

Fortunately, on this occasion intelligence succeeded where security failed. That will not always be the case. It is certain that AQAP will continue to push at the door while it seeks to build capability inside Western nations. Our assessment is that is very likely that the group’s innovations will eventually produce a successful large attack against a Western target. That is more likely to happen in the Gulf region than elsewhere, but the group’s proven preoccupation with aviation, and its developing expertise in deploying concealed high explosives, suggests that its horizons remain firmly international.

Dr. David Claridge is managing director of Janusian Security Risk Management (www.janusian.com).

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