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Al Qaeda in Yemen Taking Advantage of ‘Arab Spring’ Fallout

Awlaki booking photo 1997.jpg

April 1997: Anwar al-Awlaki's booking photo for soliciting a prostitute. (FBI)

Al Qaeda in Yemen is focused on attacks outside of the region, and as the Arab Spring unfolded across the Middle East the terror network’s most active and lethal affiliate took advantage of the political instability to further expand its operations in Yemen, senior Pentagon officials say.

“We are more concerned today than we were in December 2009,” a defense official said, referring to the failed underwear bomb attack by the Al Qaeda affiliate on Christmas Day.

The group, also known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, has found a way to pursue both its regional goals of establishing an Islamic state along with its external operations. “They are not seen as mutually exclusive,” the defense official added.

As for the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to be hiding in Yemen, a defense official says he is “involved in efforts to launch transnational attacks.”

Despite a drone attack in May that nearly killed the cleric, an official says al-Awlaki remains focused on external plotting and that it is not at all clear that “he is underground.”

The stark assessment comes one day after the nation’s top intelligence and counterterrorism officials told Congress that al Qaeda’s affiliates are now eclipsing the Al Qaeda core leadership in Pakistan.

“AQAP is certainly among our biggest concerns from a counter terrorism perspective,” Matt Olsen, the new head of the National Counterterrorism Center told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday. “It has shown itself to be – to have both the intent and capability of carrying out attacks against the United States in the homeland.”

Olsen told senators that al-Awlaki, has also been the driver of the group’s strong propaganda targeting U.S. citizens and western European. The group’s “Inspire” magazine on the web – with its slick graphics – is a lifestyle magazine for would-be jihadists.

“The actual issues of Inspire Magazine have included step-by-step bomb making instructions,” Olsen said. “One of the biggest concerns about the nature of the information is it’s quite basic. It’s easy to follow. It’s not – it doesn’t require someone to be particularly sophisticated to follow these instructions.”

FBI Director Robert Mueller said the new digital jihad that relies on social networking and the web is hard to counter.

“While we have the tools, the likelihood, the possibility of eradicating ‘Inspire’ from the Internet, understanding it’s not just the United States but every country around the world, is virtually impossible,” he said. “And to the extent that we have some capabilities to address that, it's something we probably ought to talk about, not necessarily in open session.”

Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said at a conference this week that the core leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan may be unraveling. And for the first time, Vickers laid out a public timetable, stating “within 18 to 24 months, core al-Qaeda’s cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment”

Olsen warned senators that while al Qaeda core is weakening, the affiliates, including Yemen, may step up to fill the vacuum. Yemen’s president has been out of the country for months in Saudi Arabia after an attack by the opposition that left him severely wounded.

“Whether Yemen is a safe haven, we are very concerned about the ability of the Yemeni government at this point to sustain any strong counterterrorism efforts, given the governance challenges that it faces. So, AQAP has had the opportunity to recruit inside Yemen and to plan and plot inside Yemen in a way that - you know, so we've put extreme pressure on al Qaeda senior leadership. It's been more difficult for us to put that same pressure on AQAP leaders in Yemen.”

National Correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for Al Qaeda's American Recruits" was published by Crown on June 21st. Drawing on her reporting for Fox News, it is the first book to investigate Al Qaeda 2.0 and the new generation of digital jihadists. It presents compelling evidence that the cleric, al-Awlaki, was an overlooked key player in 9/11 who double crossed the FBI.

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.