The recent discovery of two printer cartridges loaded with explosives aboard two US-bound cargo flights has once again turned the world's attention to the potential international terror threat emanating from Yemen.
The US remains the main target for terrorists in Yemen
The bombs, which were traced to the impoverished country on the Arabian Peninsula after being found at airports in Britain and Dubai, were described by US security experts as showing a higher degree of professionalism and sophistication than any devices previously linked to Yemen's al-Qaeda wing - al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Experts who investigated the failed bombing of a US-bound plane in December 2009, an attempted attack later claimed by AQAP, said that if the toner bombs had been constructed by Yemeni al-Qaeda operatives then the group had achieved a level of expertise previously unseen. "If al-Qaeda indeed made them," former CIA agent Robert Baer told the Washington Times, "then they've teamed up with true professionals."
The sophistication of the bombs helped them to pass undetected through explosives scanners at hubs such as Britain's East Midlands airport and Cologne-Bonn, a fact that prompted the German government - along with Britain, France, Canada and the United States - to ban airfreight from Yemen and extend the restrictions to include passenger flights originating there.
Terrorism experts initially suggested that the cargo planes were targeted for explosion over densely populated cities but when it was revealed that the bombs made the first part of the journey on commercial tourism flights, some experts were then forced to revise their theories to include a potential strike against airborne passengers.
The sophistication of the bombs have surprised experts
Despite foiling the bomb plots before any lives were lost, US intelligence agencies are concerned that Yemen-based terrorist groups are becoming increasingly advanced in their planning. They are quickly learning not to underestimate the threat coming out of Yemen's impoverished, tribal landscape and are reviewing their risk assessment of the group's potential international reach.
Given the sophistication of the devices, their route through Germany and the discovery of one of the bombs at Britain's East Midlands Airport, the nightmare scenario of AQAP extending its reach to Europe has put the continent's anti-terror authorities on alert.
However, Jeremy Binnie, terrorism and insurgency editor at Jane's Defense, believes that AQAP has had the opportunity to attack European targets but has so far maintained its focus on the United States.
AQAP had opportunity to hit Europe but didn't, say experts
"The data points we have suggest that the US remains AQAP's primary target," Binnie told Deutsche Welle. "They could have blown up the toner bombs anywhere over Europe but chose not to which suggests their final destination would have been the United States with detonation taking place over a densely-populated area to maximise casualties. As with the Christmas Day attempt last year, the bomb travelled through Europe destined for Chicago but again, the bomb was not detonated in Europe suggesting the target was clearly the US."
AQAP boss Nasser al-Wahaishi leads the Yemen franchise
"AQAP are very ambitious," he added. "They want to hit the 'head of the snake' as Osama bin Laden calls the US, not Washington's partners. Attacking the US is al-Qaeda's primary objective as it creates the maximum amount of coverage, increases international pressure on governments like Yemen's to confront Islamist militants and in turn destabilizes these countries, making them even more vulnerable to al-Qaeda's influence."
Henry Wilkinson, the associate director of Janusian Security Risk Management, agreed that the US was more likely to be a target for AQAP but that Europe's association with the US also put it at a certain amount of risk.
"I don't think Europe is any higher a priority target than the United States," he told Deutsche Welle. "AQAP has made threats against all the Western powers it argues are causing harm to Muslims - by gift of military deployments in Afghanistan or Iraq, support for Israel, or perceived offences against Islam such as banning the veil. I suspect the United States is the most sought after target, but Europe seems to be the focus of more plots - I suspect because it is a softer target by gift of border security and a greater preponderance of local sympathisers."
European nations equally at risk should AQAP switch focus
When asked if the discovery of a toner bomb in Britain or the fact that it passed through Germany on its route suggested either country was under specific threat, Wilkinson disagreed.
"I don't think there is any merit in suggesting any one country is at particular risk," he said. "AQAP has threatened many countries and may have been involved in the kidnap and murder of several German nationals in northern Yemen in 2009. In this respect, I think Germany as a leading European country is as much at risk as France, the UK, or any other prominent European nation."
The bombs could have gone off in Cologne or Britain - but didn't
"If AQAP or any other groups were intent on mounting an attack in Europe, they would take into account operational viability and target opportunity, as well as political significance of attacking the country."
While the high-profile cases coming out of Yemen have certainly turned the world's attention toward its situation, most experts consider other countries as regions more deserving of concern in relation to European security.
"We have not seen much evidence that AQAP has the capability to mount long-lead, multi-cell operations in Europe, and its record of attempting such operations have mostly focused on Saudi Arabia," Wilkinson said. "While I think this latest incident has focussed minds on the threat from Yemen, the hierarchy of threat concerns for most European governments very likely remains, in order, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Somalia and then Yemen."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge