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Yemen: Al Qaeda 2.0

Al Qaeda in Yemen has learned from the mistakes made in Iraq and other battle zones.

Yemeni man walks past burning tires
A Yemeni man walks past burning tires during a protest in the southern town of Sabr of the Lahj province on July 28, 2010, against the arrest of 10 men suspected in ambushing a military vehicle and killing four soldiers. (AFP/Getty Images)

SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni soldiers streamed into the streets of the capital this weekend after a deadly attack on intelligence services by alleged Al Qaeda gunmen, underscoring the impact of what U.S. government officials and experts on terrorism say has become the world’s most active and dangerous offshoot of Al Qaeda.

With dozens of attacks this year on spy and security forces, including deadly raids into the very headquarters of Yemen’s “mukhabarat,” or intelligence branch, Yemen’s newly invigorated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is reshaping the mission, strategy and tactics of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda brand, experts say. And the Yemeni government is now stepping up its effort to confront this insurgency and doing so with pledges of more than $1 billion in military aid from the United States.

At this point, there is a "raging war taking place between Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Yemeni government,’’ said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics, and a longtime scholar of Al Qaeda.

Diversifying from Al Qaeda’s core vision of mass-casualty attacks upon people of the distant, hated West, Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen have redirected their aim squarely upon the weak, fumbling and corrupt government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh this summer sided more than ever with the United States against the Al Qaeda forces who have made their home in his country, proclaiming Al Qaeda the greatest danger to his country.

Increasing the threat, this is an incarnation of Al Qaeda that has learned from the mistakes of Al Qaeda in Iraq and other battle zones, experts say. This is an Al Qaeda driven by ardent and experienced Saudi veterans of campaigns against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Before, they were hiding in the mountains, in deserted places,” said Saeed Ali al-Jemhi, a Yemeni author on Al Qaeda. “Now, they are hitting in the cities.”

These days, bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda and the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, is believed by many terrorism experts and counterterrorism officials to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Al Qaeda groups in Iraq and in the Sahara have floundered after alienating their Sunni Muslim base. Al Qaeda’s offshoots in Somalia and Indonesia continue to struggle to take form.

But here, Al Qaeda in Yemen, made up of a few hundred members at most, is coordinated, motivated and on the attack, terrorism experts say.

Al Qaeda fighters have hit checkpoints, police stations, intelligence offices and, in June, the high-walled, tightly guarded compound of Yemen’s domestic intelligence agency in the port city of Aden, killing 13 in one well-planned assault. This month, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula published the names of 55 Yemeni security and intelligence officials it intended to kill.

Saturday morning, suspected Al Qaeda gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying guards for one of Yemen’s intelligence branches, according to news reports. The barrage killed at least two aboard the bus.

Yemeni security forces typically have been able to shield the capital, Sanaa, from most of the violence that hits elsewhere in the country; in response to the attack on the bus, Yemeni troops took up positions in roadways throughout the city. Soldiers flagged down vehicles to peer inside at the occupants.

Adding to the pressure on Saleh’s government, the United States in particular has pressed Yemen hard for decisive action after the failed December attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, by a man trained for the attack by Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Last month, an Al Qaeda ambush in a market in southern Yemen helped push Saleh and his largely family-run security forces into Yemen’s first full-on assault on Al Qaeda.

In that attack, witnesses and townspeople said, armed and bearded Al Qaeda fighters came upon a dozen or so Yemeni soldiers in an open-air market in the city of Lowdar. At the time, the souk’s stalls of okra, potatoes, tomatoes, rice and fish were crowded with shoppers buying food to break the daily fast of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

The Yemeni soldiers pleaded for their lives — even handed over their guns, unasked, said Ali Saleh, who was shopping in the market that day.

‘’We are Muslim,’’ shoppers heard the Yemeni soldiers tell the Al Qaeda gunmen.

The Al Qaeda fighters opened fire regardless. By the next day, Aug. 20, at least two of the Yemeni soldiers had died. That afternoon, hundreds of Yemeni troops rolled toward Lowdar, in Yemen’s largest mobilization yet against the terrorist group.

Fighting between Al Qaeda and Yemeni forces intensified again last week, when Yemeni forces surrounded the southeastern town of Huta with tanks and artillery. Security officials pledged full-scale airstrikes, and ordered all innocent civilians out. By Friday morning, Yemen’s military said it had taken the town.