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The house bin Laden built

Osama bin Laden's father's house stands in Wadi Doan, Yemen, though experts say it's far from the only reason Al Qaeda is on the rise there.

Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, thinks that explaining the rise of Al Qaeda in Yemen by relying solely on bin Laden’s father’s ties to the country, by referring to the country as his “homeland,” is misleading.

“It does a disservice, by reducing the threat of Al Qaeda in Yemen to a cliche, as if that one phrase encapsulated all that one ever needed to know about Yemen,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen cites the weakness and corruption of the Yemeni prisons, where Al Qaeda members have been held, but later escaped or released, as a major contributing factor to the rise of the local Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. It was a jailbreak in 2006 by the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and 22 other militants, that lead to the formation of the group.

AQAP has grown significantly since then, and it merged with the Saudi Arabian branch of Al Qaeda last year. The organization has carried out multiple attacks against soft targets in Yemen in the past two years and a car-bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2008 that killed 16. The attempted bombing of the Northwest flight, if it was indeed planned by AQAP, represents the organization’s growing capacity for international attacks.

For policy makers, though, the challenge in Yemen will be not only battling the powerful extremist elements in the country, but also addressing the numerous crises that have weakened the beleaguered government and strengthened AQAP.

U.S. involvement in Yemen may also motivate terrorist groups in the region. Al-Shabbab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgent group in Somalia, announced on Friday that it would send fighters to Yemen to work against the central government, according to news reports.

U.S. policy tends to ignore the nuance of the situation in Yemen, Johnsen, the Princeton expert said. “By focusing on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of nearly every other challenge and by linking all of its aid to this single issue, the U.S. has ensured that it will always exist. There is a great and growing fear in Yemen that the country would be forgotten and neglected in the absence of the threat from Al Qaeda,” he said.

For many here in Yemen, the threat posed by the rise of Al Qaeda can seem just as distant as it often seems in the U.S. It is another problem in the long list of growing crises that the fragile country faces as it struggles to avoid becoming another failed state.

On a recent December afternoon, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral village, Al Rubat, was quiet. For the past 70 years, Mohamed bin Laden’s house has been used as a school and a rented apartment. Today, it has fallen into semi-abandoned disrepair. A distant uncle of bin Laden’s still lives upstairs in a small, unlit apartment, a recluse caretaker of an imagined past.

“Osama bin Laden wasn’t born here, he didn’t grow up here, he’s never even visited,” said Ali Abdullah, whose family has lived in Al Rubat for generations. “We don’t have anything to do with him, or what he stands for.”

Abdullah’s neighbor, Said Mohammed Saleh, said the town is too small to concern itself with international affairs, Al Qaeda or the whereabouts of its infamous and elusive grandson.

“You want to know our major problem? We don’t have enough teachers, the date palms are sick and there’s too much trash in the streets,” he said, gesturing toward a three-foot pile of pink plastic bags. “These are the things we think about here.”