Leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have left Yemen for Somalia, according to Somali officials quoted by Reuters and Yemeni media reports. Somali officials said at least 12 AQAP leaders arrived in Somalia from Yemen in the last two weeks.
"We don't have evidence that this is happening, but it's not beyond the pale," says Kamran Bokhari, regional director ME and South Asia for the global intelligence company STRATFOR. He notes that it's in the interest of the Somali government to say that the AQAP leaders have come to Somalia, as it could translate into more help from the U.S. in the fight against militant groups in the country. It's also in the interest of the Yemeni government, since it would mean its recent efforts against jihadist groups were successful.
But Bokhari believes the reports could be credible, especially given the nature of the group.
"AQAP is now behaving not like a regional jihadi force, but like an international jihadi force, like al Qaeda prime," he says.
Bokhari points out that they are planning attacks beyond the region, including the training of the Umar al Faruq Abd al Mutalib, the Nigerian behind the failed suicide bombing of the Northwest Airways plane last December. Moving to Somalia would therefore not be solely for safety reasons but also to expand their operations.
AQAP had relocated once before from Saudi Arabia to Yemen for strategic reasons. Yemen has stepped up its efforts against al Qaeda in the country after the December 25th failed attack in the U.S.
According to the recent reports, the AQAP members left through the port of Al Mukala and ordered their cells in Yemen to suspend all operations and communications between them until the end of June.
The reports come a few days after the Somali Islamist group Hizbul Islam invited al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Somalia.
They also come amid reports that the U.S. has approved putting the radical American Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki on a hit list. Al Awlaki resides in Yemen. He is believed to have had ties with both Abdulmutallab, the failed Northwestern Airline suicide bomber, and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood last November.
Bokhari says Yemen's geographical position puts it at the crossroads of four jihadists camps, namely Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Afghanistan/Pakistan. "There's a lot of traffic in this area which is a problem for the President (Ali Abdullah Saleh). His country is open to infiltration from all these four different camps."