The latest issue of the magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirms what we’ve learned from the European terror alerts: the al-Qaeda leadership is commanding the network to focus on “soft” targets that can be struck with ease. This is a reflection of the group’s degraded capacity, but this shift means an attack is far more likely, albeit with a much smaller casualty count than on 9-11.
The most frightening suggestion in al-Qaeda’s magazine is that jihadists carry out shootings at restaurants in Washington, D.C., as it’ll garner media attention and “might end up knocking out a few government employees.” Other ideas are more creative, such as creating “the ultimate mowing machine” by driving a pickup truck with blades welded onto the grill to “mow down the enemies of Allah.” It advises that “you need to pick up as much speed as you can while still retaining good control.”
Hit-and-run jihad is actually not a new concept, but the publication does say “this method has not been used before.” The “ultimate mowing machine” plot sounds like something ridiculous out of Death Race 2000, but the idea is to be completely unpredictable so as to instill the highest amount of anxiety possible. No longer do plots need to be sophisticated, they just need to happen. Al-Qaeda is less worried now about trying to recreate the drama of 9/11 and is more concerned with making Americans and Europeans know what it’s like to be an Israeli. And al-Qaeda’s ability to make that happen is increasing, especially as more and more Westerners convert to radical Islam.
The fact that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is publishing the magazine is important. This is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and one of its primary objectives is to reach out to Americans. The publisher of the magazine is Samir Khan, a 24-year-old American who traveled to Yemen from North Carolina. Shockingly, despite his operation of a radical pro-Bin Laden website while in the U.S., he was able to board a flight to Yemen to join the terrorist group as anyone with a brain should know he wanted to do. This issue also featured a commentary by Adam Gadahn, another American recruit known for his videos boasting of his treachery.
The spiritual leader of this group is Anwar al-Awlaki, another American citizen who served as an imam at the Dar-al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, where his sermons were attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers and Nidal Malik Hasan, who would later become known as the Fort Hood shooter and who has ties to al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki has also been connected to the Christmas Day underwear bomb plot. As a fluent English speaker with a heavy Internet presence, al-Awlaki is inspiring jihadists around the world. Terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann says that al-Awlaki’s lecture titled “Constants on the Path of Jihad” is a “virtual bible for lone-wolf terrorists” and that his sermons seem “to surface in every single homegrown terrorism investigation.”
It should be assumed that al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has Western recruits in its ranks both in the Gulf and in the United States. A Senate report has warned that up to three dozen former convicts who converted to Islam are currently in Yemen, ostensibly to study Arabic. It is said that at least some of these are “blonde-haired, blue-eyed types.” The Obama administration has concluded that homegrown extremism is increasing and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center says that the number of plots against the U.S. is at the highest level since 9/11. This problem is getting worse, and in a democratic society with countless “soft” targets vulnerable to attack, the outlook is grim.
Luckily, al-Qaeda and its allies have a habit of shooting themselves in the foot by overreaching. They have foolishly waged war on governments helpful to them like those in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. They massacred Muslim civilians in Iraq, helping the surge to succeed by uniting the tribes against them. And they seem to be making the same mistake in Yemen, where al-Awlaki’s tribal links have helped protect him.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is telling President Saleh to “run for your life” because they’ve set up an army to overthrow the Yemeni government. If al-Qaeda makes good on its threats, the Yemeni government will be forced to confront al-Awlaki despite his tribal affiliations and they will likely permit and actively assist consistent U.S. drone strikes. The CIA has carried out strikes in the past, but with a strong terrorist presence in Yemen, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the U.S. has been allowed to strike every target it wishes.
While al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is the one most outwardly aimed at recruiting and inspiring Americans, al-Shabaab in Somalia has also proven skillful. For the time being, al-Shabaab appears focused on recruiting Westerners, mostly of Somali origin, in order to gain recruits in their fight to conquer the East African country. The ongoing arrests of Americans involved in helping al-Shabaab, though, indicate the group does have the capacity to carry out attacks in the U.S. and Europe but has chosen not to jeopardize its networks by acting too hastily.
The terrorist organizations have been significantly damaged, but ironically, this positive development has led to a negative consequence: Al-Qaeda has made the decision to focus on attacks on “soft” targets that are easier to execute, especially with the help of a growing number of American and European recruits. Their abilities to carry out spectacular, jaw-dropping attacks have been hampered, but the terror and economic damage those attacks are designed to achieve can also be sparked by a steady pace of smaller attacks.