Al Qaeda got some major publicity in the last week, this time when a major terror operation in Yemen failed, and one of their key members was revealed to be a spy for Saudi Arabia (or maybe he was just bribed). The al Qaeda attack was via bombs built into laser printer toner cartridges and shipped via air freight to addresses in Chicago, in the American Midwest. While air cargo on passenger flights is screened in the West, it often isn't in poor nations like Yemen. And very little air cargo moved on air freighters (that carry no passengers) is screened. The problem for terrorists is not knowing if their parcel bomb will get screened, and how to set it off in flight. The Yemeni bomb builder, apparently the same one who built the unsuccessful "underwear bomb" that failed to detonate over the American Midwest last Christmas, again built a complex bomb that didn't work. Police are not releasing all the details of the toner bomb, but it apparently used a cell phone, which meant it could be detonated using the phone's timer or by calling it. The former would work in the air, if you knew when the parcel would be airborne, while the latter would only work on the ground. None of the bombs went off and two were seized and examined. Successful bombs like this usually use an altimeter, but these can have reliability problems as well, and are not as available as cell phones.
Yemeni troops continue to search for the 400 or so al Qaeda members hiding out in the countryside. But there are hundreds of villages and thousands of family compounds that could shelter these guys. Hundreds of roadblocks try (and sometimes succeed) at capturing terrorists on the move (often to a city for an attack). But it's a tedious process. In most of the countryside, tribes police themselves, and outsiders are generally not welcome. Al Qaeda is different, because they are folk heroes, to many Yemenis, for fighting infidels (non-Moslems). Most Yemenis adhere to an old school form of Islam that still encourages war against the infidels. Thus the government "searches" are more in the form of discussions with tribal leaders (by a senior officer accompanied by lots of heavily armed soldiers, just in case) and the offering of bribes or other attractive inducements. This often works, but if it doesn't, you're stuck. War isn't really an option, because the Yemeni government is a fragile tribal coalition that could come apart if too many tribes found themselves fighting the government. Yemen has rarely enjoyed stability, and a population explosion in the last century has depleted natural resources. The locals have not coped well, and endless tragedy is the result.
Yemen has bigger problems than al Qaeda hiding out in the hills. The Somali pirates have made Yemeni waters unsafe to use, for both fishing boats and cargo ships. Thus it's more expensive to bring in stuff by ship, and the fishing industry is losing over $150 million a year. It's generally unreported, but far more Yemenis are killed by tribal feuds and battles over shrinking water supplies, than by terrorist activity (or the rebellion in the north, and separatist violence in the south.) The unemployment rate is over 30 percent and only about half of school graduates get a job. A lot of Yemenis are unhappy, and they prefer to blame someone else (Westerners are a favorite fall guy.)
November 2, 2010: The government has charged radical cleric, Anwar al Awlaki, and two other men, with plotting to kill foreigners. The government has long resisted U.S. requests to arrest and extradite the American born al Awlaki. Tribal politics and a general disdain for Westerners (and foreigners in general) in Yemen made this politically unpalatable. But with the latest al Qaeda air cargo bombing plot, the government felt the least it could do was issue an arrest warrant. Actually taking him into custody is another matter, because al Awlaki belongs to a major tribe that has the self-proclaimed Islamic radical under its protection. Recognizing this, the government is going to try al Awlaki in abstentia, which is intended to make the Americans feel better without enraging thousands of armed tribesmen. Also, by dragging out the process of actually capturing al Awlaki, the government can extract more military and economic aid (which is running at about $150 million a year) from the United States. For nearly a year, the U.S. has had a "capture or kill" order out on al Awklaki (who is probably in some family compound out in the hills, surrounded by women and children, knowing the U.S. is reluctant to launch a missile at a target surrounded by human shields.)
In the south, al Qaeda bombed one of the pipelines bringing oil to its seaside shipping terminal.
October 29, 2010: Two parcel bombs were found, in Britain and the Persian Gulf, travelling via air freight. Neither went off, but both came from Yemen. The bombers used the stolen ID of a local college student to ship the packages. The bombs were apparently constructed by the same crew that make two other imaginative, but unsuccessful, bombs (one built into underwear, the other shoved up the suicide bombers ass) in the two years. The search has been intensified for the bomb makers (led by wanted Saudi terrorist Hassan Al Asiri), because they have some skills, and may eventually build something that works.
In the south, tribal leaders negotiated the surrender of an al Qaeda leader they had been sheltering.