May 10, 2012, by Fraser

Second ‘underpants bomb’ plot shows Al-Qaeda still dangerous

There have been two major news stories in the past week that seemingly give off opposing views on the danger posed by Al-Qaeda.

To mark the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden last week, the US government authorised the release of seventeen documents captured in his compound in Pakistan. This selective handful of letters and emails showed a terrorist leader grappling with insubordinate recruits, potential name changes to the group, and problematic allies.

In short, it projected an image of Al-Qaeda struggling to maintain any relevance to international politics.

Explosive underpants

The second news story of the week, yesterday’s foiled plot to undertake a suicide attack on an American plane using explosive underpants, threatens that perception of seeming impotence on Al-Qaeda’s behalf. There are still Al-Qaeda operatives amongst its various affiliates and franchises that are bent on harming the West.

This bomb plot reveals two interesting features in relation to Al-Qaeda that, in light of what we now know from last week’s release of some of the Bin Laden files, generates new insight into the group.

Firstly, it is Al-Qaeda members in Yemen, nominally tied to the organisation known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who are now amongst the most active operatives in the movement. Yemen has been the origin of both ‘underpants bomb’ plots (the first attempt failed on board a flight over Detroit in December 2009).

The departure of President Saleh of Yemen late last year has opened up new hope for AQAP that it can further disrupt the politics of this already volatile country.

American targets

The second observation we can draw from this foiled plot is that Al-Qaeda is re-focussing its attacks explicitly against American targets. Traditionally, the group has been split between those wishing to target military and political symbols within the Arab world, and those wanting to strike out further afield in the West, mainly the United States.

Information in the Bin Laden files, and this latest thwarted attack, demonstrate a renewed desire amongst the remnants of Al-Qaeda to refocus efforts on attacking the US on their own soil.

They may be dwindling in number, but we should be wary of the on-going threat these terrorists pose.

Dr Andrew Mumford is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

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