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Al-Qaida In Yemen: A New Top U.S. Priority


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Terrorists are still targeting the U.S. homeland. We were reminded of that with news this past week that al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen plotted to blow up a plane headed to the United States.

What's now also clear, the U.S. is now aggressively targeting the terrorists in Yemen. Consider the recent tally: A foreign agent penetrated the group and gave its newest bomb design to the CIA. Drone strikes killed the group's chief of operations against the West and three other key leaders, all part of the West's stepped-up efforts to go after al-Qaida's top affiliate.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Until about 2009, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, was an also-ran. Counterterrorism officials didn't think it had the ability to target the West. They miscalculated. Several Christmases ago, an AQAP operative boarded a U.S.-bound flight with explosives hidden in his underwear.

If the bomb hadn't malfunctioned, U.S. officials say, it would have brought the plane down before it reached Detroit. The attack got everyone's attention.

PETER NEUMANN: I think U.S. government has reacted quite, quite swiftly to this development and is shifting resources and quite rightly so.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Peter Neumann is a professor of security studies at Kings College, London, and he says the Christmas Day plot might well have been a one-off event, had it not been for a jail break in Yemen last year. The escape meant that 60 of the country's most experienced al-Qaida operatives were suddenly free. The men joined AQAP, flooding the group with operational commanders and organizers and fighters with battlefield experience. And, as the group's profile grew, jihadis from all over the world arrived in Yemen to join their ranks.

That newfound stature, Peter Neumann says, introduced a vulnerability.

NEUMANN: If you are expanding your staff, so to speak, very rapidly, you can not be very careful, ultimately, about who you take on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which could explain how British intelligence managed to get their agent inside. But rather than being an end to the operation, last week's chain of events are really a beginning. They make clear that intelligence officials see AQAP as their new top priority. Foreign intelligence services, including the Saudis, claim they have more operatives inside the group waiting for instructions.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.