Saturday, May 12, 2012

AQAP’s Fight From the Sea

This week’s most excellent news from the Arabian Peninsula was that long time fugitive COLE bombing planner Fahd al-Quso was exploded. But a little noticed related story was Al Qaeda’s retaliatory attack in the vicinity of Zinjibar, which killed 30+ Yemeni troops. What is most interesting about this attack is that a portion of AQAP’s fighters reportedly infiltrated via fishing boats, demonstrating a very nascent amphibious warfare capability. The importance of Zinjibar and Yemen’s Southern coast to AQ's strategy has been discussed by this author before.

In the terrorists’ own words: “Attention is drawn to the fact that for the first time the Mujahideen attacked the puppets both by land and sea. This fact testifies to the rapidly growing potential of the armed forces of AQAP.” Since the attack on COLE, Islamic militants in Yemen have occasionally promoted their “fleet” and threatened friendly shipping. So why haven’t we seen more evidence of their maritime capability? One, as special operations folks like to say, "don't confuse enthusiasm with capability."  Al Qaeda's appreciation and desire for naval power is real, but building a viable maritime capability much beyond smuggling networks and an occasional lucky attack is  challenging.  Second, since COLE, allied navies and commercial shipping have increased their awareness and hardened themselves against these sorts of attacks (we also have unchecked piracy to thank for that). Finally, these plots have likely been quietly disrupted by various counter-terrorism actions.  Nevertheless, much like AQAP’s ongoing laser-like focus on attacking Western aviation was inspired by successful 911 aviation attacks, aspirations for a useful maritime capability bolstered by the success against COLE are unlikely to wane, so ongoing attention is warranted.

And in a tangentially-connected story, four Somalis were arrested on Yemen’s Socotra Island learning how to scuba dive. Were they these guys just enjoying a sabbatical from buccaneering or do they represent another example of the al Shabaab fighters who have increasingly adjusted their sights toward jihad in Yemen as their own prospects falter in Somalia?  As AQAP still controls territory in Southern Yemen, it has become the new magnet and safe haven for foreign fighters.  Until we get serious about destroying these safe havens faster than they can regenerate, the movement will persist and the war against al Qaeda will not be won.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.

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