Jihadist Groups Look Beyond Local Borders

Until recently, the concept of a local group was clear: insurgent and jihadist groups were local when they fought on behalf of regional interest and only represented a threat the primary country they targeted. The scope of their ambition and threat was limited to their immediate targets and close neighbors. Trends in recent years, however, show the threat from al-Qaeda affiliated local jihadist groups is the same as that posed by the transnational al-Qaeda core, based in Afghanistan. The expansion of operations and ambition from formerly local groups has been illustrated in recent years by al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Days after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, AQAP claimed responsibility for the plot. AQAP claims to be comprised of al-Qaeda branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In an official communiqué issued on jihadist forums on December 28, 2009, the group asserted that the attempted attack was designed and carried out ‘through direct coordination with the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula”. Stating that Abdulmutallab was motivated “to respond directly to the unjust American aggression on the Arabian Peninsula”, the group asserted that they developed the explosives and detonator for the failed attack, writing:

  “The mujahideen brothers in the manufacturing department managed, with grace from Allah, to make a device of sophisticated technology, which was tested and proven effective and successful. It was also passed through detectors."[1]  

AQAP underscored their success in developing explosives that can pass through multiple security checkpoints twice in the communiqué. Issuing a direct challenge to Western security systems, the message brags that Abdulmutallab

  “…penetrated all modern and sophisticated technology and devices and security barriers in airports of the world, with courage and bravery… dispel[ing]…the myth of the American and international intelligence, proving its fragility and forcing its pride into the dust, turning all that they spent in the development of security technology into grief for them.”  

AQAP’s forthright claim of responsibility, issued days after the incident, for a failed attack initially seems to present more of a liability than an asset. By stating their responsibility for the incident, and boasting of being able to design explosives that can be smuggled through airport security, al-Qaeda in Yemen could expect to,immediately become one of the most targeted jihadist groups in the world. Indeed, by January 13, 2010, Yemeni security forces had killed an alleged cell leader, Abdullah Mehdar.[2]

The group’s announcement is especially puzzling, as by all accounts, until December 28, 2009 AQAP had enjoyed a relative level of freedom and autonomy in Yemen. Indeed, the New York Times quoted Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi stating that the Yemeni when such an admission would destroy the favorable conditions under which they had been operating in Yemen? Extreme pressure from international security services would also endanger the execution of a second attack against the United States that intelligence officials suspect AQAP of planning.[3]

By their actions, AQAP indicates that the movement’s leadership has concluded that claiming responsibility for the attack through an online communiqué illustrates their capability to plan sophisticated attacks against best Western security systems. And that this outweighed the costs associated with their enemies knowing the same information. This apparent puzzle illustrates the transformative effect that al-Qaeda membership has on local insurgencies, and the resilience of a group that is at once a local insurgency and a member of the global jihadist movement. Although al-Qaeda is most often associated with transnational attacks and jihadism, affiliation with al-Qaeda spurs a profound change in the operation of local groups.

By accessing al-Qaeda’s propaganda networks, and recruiting from their followers, local groups enter a market for recruits where the most valuable currency is an attack within the United States. Carrying out an attack within the United States, and in the process thwarting the American military and security apparatus, generates a huge amount of publicity for a group. Although this publicity will also ensure retaliation, the actions of jihadist groups suggest that the legitimacy and resources stemming from such a prestigious operation outweighs the costs.

Such costs are particularly minimized for al-Qaeda affiliated local insurgencies that are able to hybridize the advantages of a traditional land-based insurgency, where members can hide among the civilian population, with the propaganda and recruitment network of al-Qaeda. AQAP feels that they can survive American retaliation for the attack, because the group is not like al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, which was isolated from the Afghan population and hiding out in the caves of Tora Bora. Instead, AQAP remains embedded in the population, granting them a measure of security.

During the several years, the strategy of AQAP has evolved into a pattern commiserate with an organization seeking to gain followers from adherents of a global jihad against the West. The group has increased the importance of attacks against Western, rather than Yemeni, targets in their rhetoric and propaganda while also distributing a number of communiqués and videos that serve the dual purpose of glorifying their fighters and outlining the process of joining jihad in Yemen. These communiqués outline the process through which selected fighters, often suicide bombers, decided to give up their secular lives, and traveled to jihad and provides insights into the group’s selection criteria of fighters for operations.

The AQAP claim of responsibility for two separate attacks against South Korean tourists and officials on March 14 and 18, 2009[4] is the most prominent example of AQAP using their attacks against foreign targets as a platform for online propaganda outreach. On June 26, 2009, the group released a video on jihadist forums featuring the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks. The video presents both bombers presented dictating messages to incite others to follow their path and threaten Western enemies. Footage in the video showed two objects used in the suicide bombings: a picture frame with explosive material inside, and a boombox that contained dozens of nails for shrapnel.

Speaking both to their audience of jihadist supporters as well as Western leaders, the bombers include messages to US President Barack Obama promising destruction and defeat in addition to words of bravado and belligerence intended for prospective recruits. In passages serving as both a eulogy and a guide for prospective recruits, the narrator described the paths to jihad for both attackers, their selection as suicide bombers, and the alleged strategic victories caused by their attacks. Describing one of the attackers, identified as “Abu Obeida”, the narrator claims:

  “His proud soul refused to live in the shadow of the agent regimes while his sisters were held by the enemies of Islam. He started looking for a way to support his brothers and sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on among the lands of Islam…When he learned that the tyrants wanted to raid his home, he did not surrender. Rather, he left his home determined not to return. He began to look for his mujahideen brothers in the Arabian Peninsula to preempt his enemies with a strike…  
  “Among what drew the attention of those who lived with him during his joining the caravan of the mujahideen is that he was serviceable. Every time you see him, he is serving his brothers, reading the Book of his Lord or preparing the equipment in the Cause of Allah in various ways of preparation. He always cared to make his brothers happy till his time with martyrdom came in a successful martyrdom-seeking operation against a South Korean group of tourists who often inflicted the taste of killing and destruction on Muslims. South Korea then was forced to order its nationals to withdraw from the entire Middle East and not only from the Arabian Peninsula.[5]  

Initially, the AQAP targeted primarily Yemeni security agents and governments in the region. For example, in an audio message distributed on jihadist forums in December, 2007, Abu Baseer al-Wuhayshi, leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, called Yemenis to jihad. The message referred to Iraq as the “first line of defense” and the spearhead for the Islamic Ummah, and praises the Mujahideen in that battlefield.[6] Beginning in 2008, al-Qaeda in yemen, particularly the Jund al-Yemen Brigades group, expanded their range of targets to include tourists and Western interests in Yemen. Throughout the year, the group issued sporadic claims of responsibility for attacks on foreign targets while also increasing the virulence of their anti-Western propaganda.

AQAP continued to raise the profile of their attacks targeting foreigners in 2009, notably in two attacks against South Korean tourists in Yemen. Along with the increased attention to foreign targets, AQAP has correspondingly increased the prominence and sophistication of their communiques claiming responsibility for the attacks.

Elaborating on the justification for attacking Western tar­gets in an interview with a Yemeni journalist, Abu Baseer al-Wuhayshi threatened Western interests in the region and justified physical violence against the enemy. The text of this interview was posted on the website of al-Jazeera television on January 26, 2009, and copied on jihadist forums as well as announced by AQAP in the seventh issue of their electronic magazine, “Echo of the Epics”. In the interview, al-Wuhayshi described AQAP’s focus on the West as:

  “Also, the main supporters of the occupation of Palestine are America and Europe, so we must destroy them and the Crusader interests that are spread over the Arabian Peninsula, including Yemen. They must be struck to support Palestine and to prepare the generation of [support].”[7]  

Given the incentives local groups stand to gain from a successful attack within the United States and Western allies, these countries will be exposed to threats both from jihadist organizations explicitly engaged in global conflict as well as those that are predominantly focused on a specific region. The quickly shifting ambitions of local jihadist groups is not confined to the strategies of AQAP, but as the following section shows, is also employed by several al-Qaeda affiliated insurgencies.

Strategies of Other al-Qaeda Groups

Following their attempted Christmas attack, AQAP is currently the most prominent practitioner of the strategy of carrying out attacks within Western countries in order to raise their profile. However, they are far from the first to do so, joining the ranks of al-Qaeda linked insurgencies from Iraq to Somalia. Before their 2006 integration into the Mujahideen Shura Council, al-Qaeda in Iraq is reported to have been planning attacks within the United States.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was an extensive mujahideen network comprised of both Iraqi and foreign fighters, seeking to remove all foreign forces from Iraq, topple the Iraqi interim government, and eliminate the Shi’ite population. The group’s most notorious leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, led the group under its previous title, Tawhid wal Jihad. Zarqawi officially changed the name to al-Qaeda in Iraq after pledging loyalty to the global al-Qaeda movement on October 17, 2004

As early at 2005 media reports were citing American intelligence that the leadership of al-Qaeda was encouraging Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq until his death in June 2006, to attack with in the United States. These communications were alleged to have occurred during the first year of the Iraqi insurgency’s affiliation with al-Qaeda.[8]

al-masriConfirming al-Qaeda in Iraq’s desire to attack within the United States, Zarqawi’s successor as leader and the Minister of War for the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, reiterated his group’s attempts to execute large scale attacks against the West. In an audio interview produced by the ISI media arm, al-Furqan, and issued on jihadist forums on October 23, 2008, al-Muhajir indicated that the ISI was responsible for the bomb plot in London and Glasgow of June 2007 by “specifically mention[ing] the recent operation in Britain,” as an example of an attack executed by the ISI. In responding to the question of whether the ISI intends strikes in the West, al-Muhajir threatened attacks in American, Australia, and Britain, claiming:

  “Will the Cross fight us in the heart of our home, without us fighting him in the heart of his home? All the countries that participated in the hostility against Iraq and their crimes against our people are a legitimate target for us, no matter how long it takes  
  “But we give glad tidings to the leaders of Britain, America, and Australia of what is coming. Allah has blessed us with what you have no power with the assistance of Allah to repel or reveal. We ask Allah to grant us success and direction[9]  

Furthermore, the Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Shabaab) in Somalia, also al-Qaeda linked, are also suspected of planning attacks within the United States. Addressing the Senate Homeland Security Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed his concern that the Shabaab would use American recruits trained by the Shabaab as a source of access to the United States for domestic attacks.[10] He noted the group’s ambition to extend the sphere of their operation, stating:

  “I would think that we have seen some information that the leaders would like to undertake operations outside of Somalia.”[11]  

Mueller’s October, 2009 testimony reiterates the FBI’s position in a March 2009 testimony, in which Philip Mudd, Associate Executive Assistant Director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, addressed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Mudd presented the FBI’s concern, noting:

  “While there are no current indicators that any of the individuals who traveled to Somalia have been selected, trained, or tasked by al-Shabaab or other extremists to conduct attacks inside the United States, we remain concerned about this possibility and that it might be exploited in the future if other U.S. persons travel to Somalia for similar purposes.”  
  “The fact that one of the Minneapolis youths participated in a suicide attack in northern Somalia in late October 2008—which we believe is the first in­stance of a U.S. citizen participating in a suicide attack anywhere—has only added to concern over the possibility that individuals may engage in terrorist activity upon their return to the United States.”[12]  

In conclusion, al-Qaeda affiliation represents a profound change in operation and goals for local jihadist groups. In addition to their primary targets, often the local government an local Western targets, affiliated jihadist groups stand to benefit tremendously from executing operations that appeal to the global jihadist supporting community. Attacks against Western countries and local Western interests, such as tourists, businesses, or centers of operation, allow local groups to demonstrate their synergy with the global jihadist platform. However, attacks carried out within the West generate a tremendous amount of prestige within the jihadist community as such attacks require outsmarting the best intelligence and security agencies in the world. This prestige can then be leveraged into increased recruitment and funding. While Western targets may only be of secondary interest to a group joining al-Qaeda, the preferences of the jihadist community can quickly induce a group to focus on Western targets. The threat facing the United States and Europe originates from every jihadist group looking for an opportunity to increase their status.


[1] See SITE Intelligence Group, “AQAP Claims Failed Airplane Strike”, December 28, 2009.

[2] “Yemen Forces Kill ‘al-Qaeda Chief’”. BBC News. January 13, 2010.

[3] Ed Henry, Dan Lothian and Jeanne Meserve, “‘Credible threat’ from al Qaeda in Yemen”, CNN. January 16, 2010

[4] On March 14, a suicide bomber identified by AQAP as Abu Obeida al-Jarrah, struck a group of South Korean tourists in Shibam, Hadramout province in Yemen. Four days later, a second suicide bomber, Shamel al-Sana’ani, struck a South Korean diplomatic convoy in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. AQAP claimed and jus­tified the attacks in communiqués and the ninth issue of its electronic magazine, “Echo of the Epics.”

[5] See SITE Intelligence Group, “AQAP Video on Suicide Bombings Against South Koreans”, June 26, 2009.

[6] See SITE Intelligence Group, “Abu Basr Nasser Al-Wahayshi, Emir of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Addresses the Emir of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza Al-Muh­ajir, in Unauthenticated Audio Speech”. December 3, 2007.

[7] See SITE Intelligence Group, “Al-Qaeda Leader Threatens Western In­terests in Interview”, January 27, 2009

[8] Adam Brookes, “Zarqawi ‘urged to attack the US”, BBC News, March 1, 2005.

[9] See SITE Intelligence Group, “ISI Interviews its War Minister”, Octo­ber 24, 2008

[10] Catherine Herridge, “FBI Director: Al Qaeda-Linked Somali Group Could Attack U.S”. Fox News. October 2, 2009

[11] Catherine Herridge, “FBI Director: Al Qaeda-Linked Somali Group Could Attack U.S”. Fox News. October 2, 2009

[12] Philip Mudd, Statement Before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, March 11, 2009, http://www.fbi.gov/congress/congress09/mudd031109.htm.