While Al Qaeda has suffered critical blows in its post-Afghanistan home in Pakistan's tribal territory, a second wave of insurgents in the lawless regions of Northern Africa and Yemen is growing in strength and in its determination to launch significant attacks within the United States, U.S. counterterrorism officials say.
Intelligence agencies in the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Europe are working together to dismantle the growing al Qaeda cells. But political instability in the region has provided cover for the resurgence of terrorist activity, experts say.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who headed the Obama administration's Afghanistan-Pakistan review in 2010, said al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based is Yemen and called AQAP in intelligence circles, has taken the leadership role for the terror group.
During the trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber, Riedel outlined for a jury al Qaeda's plans to lure the United States into another war, this time in Yemen. A video released by the insurgent cell entitled "America and the final trap," depicted how the group sought to force the U.S. back into another shooting war in the Arab region.
Riedel told The Washington Examiner that AQAP hoped "that a successful mass casualty attack on an American city from the air will provoke the United States to send troops to attack its bases in Yemen." AQAP wants to "drag America into what it calls another 'bleeding war' like Afghanistan and Iraq to sap American resources and will," he said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials agree that Yemen's al Qaeda leadership presents a growing and very real threat.
"AQAP is the most potent [al Qaeda] node and is continuing to plot against the U.S. externally and inside Yemen," a U.S. counterterrorism official said, adding that al Qaeda's affiliates in Northern Africa are also growing in strength.
In early April, a sophisticated bomb, similar but more powerful in design to the 2009 underwear bomber, was developed in Yemen. Using a double-agent, the CIA, along with counterparts in Saudi Arabia, were able to foil the plot to use the bomb in a U.S.-bound airliner. However, bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi citizen, has eluded U.S. counterterrorism officials, surviving a number of airstrikes that targeted him.
U.S. intelligence agencies and their foreign partners have seen a disquieting increase in communication between cells in Yemen and Africa.
"You can be sure that the U.S., with the help of international partners, is bringing sophisticated counterterrorism methods, developed and refined over time, to bear against groups linked to al Qaeda in Yemen and Africa," an official said.
Yemen, with its sparse population and inhospitable territory outside the main cities, provides al Qaeda with the same kind of inaccessible redoubt that Pakistan's Northwest Frontier did for many years. "Al Qaeda is able to attract and train new recruits, especially fighters for the group's anti-government insurgency, and the space provides opportunity for safe haven when plotting against the West," the counterterrorism official said.
Riedel said Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist force operating in Yemen's Abyan province, is really al Qaeda under another name.
The group set up seven emirates under their control in southern Yemen over the last year where they are recruiting and training fighters, many of whom are suicide bombers, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
"AQAP's capabilities -- particularly bomb making and the group's ability to operate with impunity in these regions -- presents a difficult task for U.S. intelligence officials," said the official. "We are closely monitoring AQAP. Yemen's new government is cooperating and we are getting cooperation from other allies in the region. It will be difficult but not impossible to disrupt the terror cells plans."
Even neighborhoods in the city of Aden, once free of the group's influence, now show signs of al Qaeda control. An al Qaeda flag was seen flying in Yemen's port of Aden this month.
Last week's deadly suicide bombing in Yemen's capital of San'a against the country's military, which killed nearly 100 people and wounded 200 more, was another sign of the organization's increased determination to strike at the fledgling government, which they accuse of being puppets of the U.S.
"Despite our successes against the various cells in Yemen and North Africa, it hasn't deterred them from their goal. We shouldn't be deterred either," said the official. "If we let our guard down, I have no doubt that one day they'll carry through with their plans."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.