For 18 years, the United States had not experienced a deadly attack directed by a jihadist foreign terrorist organization since 9/11 — a security record that if predicted on September 12, 2001 would have seemed hopelessly naive.
Yet on December 6, 2019, that may have changed when Mohammed Al-Shamrani, a Saudi national in the United States for military training, killed three people in an attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — which operates predominantly out of Yemen — claimed responsibility for the attack in a video that showed screen grabs of a life will purported to have been written by Al-Shamrani. On May 18, the Justice Department confirmed AQAP’s role in the attack, which emphasizes the need for greater oversight of America’s counterterrorism war in Yemen and an institutionalized public review process in the wake of major terrorist attacks and near misses.
The Justice Department and FBI’s finding — based on their breaking of the encryption on Al-Shamrani’s phones — confirmed that the screengrabs shown in the AQAP claim video had indeed been sent by Al-Shamrani, putting to bed any possibility that AQAP might have faked its connection to the plot. Perhaps more importantly, they found that Al-Shamrani had radicalized by 2015 and had been plotting the attack prior to his entry to the United States. “[P]reparations for terror began years ago,” the DOJ/FBI statement said. “He had been radicalized by 2015, and having connected and associated with AQAP operatives, joined the Royal Saudi Air Force in order to carry out a ‘special operation.’” Finally, the statement confirmed that Al-Shamrani had “specific conversations with overseas AQAP associates about plans and tactics” for months while in the United States, including immediately prior to the attack.
While the exact details of Al-Shamrani’s ties to AQAP, particularly in the period before he entered the U.S. when he was developing the plot, remain unclear, this fact pattern suggests that this is the first deadly attack directed by a jihadist foreign terrorist organization in the United States since 9/11.
There have been previous directed attacks that failed, including the 2009 Christmas Day Bombing when an operative trained and directed by AQAP almost brought down an airliner over Detroit.
There have also been deadly attacks where the perpetrator had online communication with a member of a foreign terrorist organization, but did not receive operational direction — as was the case with Nidal Hasan. Hasan emailed with American-born Anwar al-Awlaki— an important figure in AQAP who played a key role in organizing the Christmas Day attack prior to his death in an American drone strike in 2011 — before he killed 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009.
But Hasan and Al-Awlaki did not converse about specific directions or preparations for the attack, and Hasan was an American citizen who plotted his attack inside the United States.
The newly confirmed details on the attack in Pensacola ought to force a review of the counterterrorism war in Yemen and the threat AQAP poses to the United States. The U.S., according the Justice Department statement, conducted a counterterrorism operation in Yemen targeting Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Al-Shamrani’s AQAP associates. The operation would be one of more than 370 U.S. counterterrorism strikes in Yemen that have killed more than 1,300 people including at least 115 civilians, according to data collected by New America.
It is possible that American counterterrorism operations in Yemen provide an important way to prevent specific terrorist attacks directed by AQAP inside the United States. For some experts like Gregory Johnsen, a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, recent years had suggested a decline in AQAP’s ability to perpetrate international terrorism that followed U.S. airstrikes. Other analysts like AEI’s Katherine Zimmerman warn of a continued threat pointing to the AQAP claim of the 2015 attack in Charlie Hebdo attack, which involved attackers who trained with the group, and reports of its continued focus on international plotting.
If AQAP’s capability has declined in recent years, it is likely in part due to American airstrikes — a proposition that could suggest a role for counterterrorism war in responding to the threat. However, Johnsen, while noting the likely role of strikes, also warns that that decline is not just a product of counterterrorism warfare, but the shift in attention to ISIS, and more importantly, that defeating AQAP’s domestic insurgency “can’t be done through drone strikes and SEAL raids.” Indeed, such efforts could be counterproductive. Zimmerman similarly argues that AQAP is “resilient” to strikes. That resilience means that however successful American strikes are, there will always be some potential for directed AQAP attacks in the West.
Any successful attack that might be directed ought to force analysts and the government to look again and re-test assumptions regarding what the international threat from AQAP is and the effectiveness of U.S. responses. This is especially the case when the U.S. response is to wage war. Such a review will require transparency regarding what we know about AQAP’s activity and the attack itself. The Department of Justice statement provides important details but is far from enough.
The need for a review is further amplified by the FBI’s determination that Thursday’s shooting at the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi, Texas was “terrorism-related” and social media evidence that suggests the suspected gunman, who died in the attack, was inspired in part by AQAP.
The December attack could be a sign of a continued, substantial AQAP capability to strike the United States. On the other hand, it could simply be the inevitable evidence that 100 percent security for two decades is impossible. Being able to distinguish between the two requires knowing the character and extent of Al-Shamrani’s ties to AQAP, whether he received material aid from the group, and how important to the attack his AQAP contacts were beyond the boost to the claim’s effort at supporting AQAP’s brand as a threat to the U.S.
It also requires the United States to clearly state its objectives for the counterterrorism war in Yemen. As it seems unlikely the United States will be able to defeat AQAP as a group, that means laying out specifics about how developed an external attack capability will merit a military response.
Given the costs of waging war, in humanitarian and other terms, and the possibility that military action would not actually reduce the threat — especially if the threat did not rely upon an extensive AQAP structure — such a review will need to examine non-military responses to the attack. One area to look at is whether the military training program under which al-Shamrani was in the U.S. requires major reforms or termination. However, policymakers should be wary of putting too much emphasis on the program itself and hyping it as opposed to closing specific vulnerabilities given the rarity of attacks by foreigners. According to Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh, Al-Shamrani would be the first terrorist attack by someone with his type of visa.
There may be other responses involving better policing in Saudi Arabia, where al-Shamrani appears to have radicalized. Other responses will require longer-term efforts to resolve grievances in Yemen and generate cultural change in the quarters of Saudi society that embrace extremism.
A review of America’s war in Yemen should also aim to carefully align any military action with international law on the use of force. In particular, any military action should be tied to direct, specific threats and not based on loose logics of preventive war, a form of reasoning that both poses legal concerns and also tends to result in endless war.
A failure to answer these questions about what happened in the lead up to the December 6 attack, what we seek in Yemen, and what means might be used to achieve the selected objectives, is a recipe for endless war. In the absence of answers, the U.S. may find itself facing continued terrorist attacks by a group with an unaddressed international attack capability.
Such a scenario is likely to eventually draw the U.S. further into the conflict if left unaddressed because the American public still supports military counterterrorism as long as it doesn’t involve large numbers of troops. Alternatively, the United States by not clearly stating its objective and examining non-military approaches could set its objective as the impossible task of pushing the risk of a terrorist attack below what any policy — no matter how effective — could achieve.
The best way to resolve these issues would be through congressional hearings that take up the responsibility to oversee America’s wars and the development of a public review process to assess the character of major attacks or near misses and whether they represent a failure of American security that could have been avoided — or not.
Transparency is not just a matter of how wars are fought but enabling the American public and its representatives to determine whether they should be fought at all. And when Americans decide they should fight counterterrorism wars, they must not shirk the responsibilities that imposes.