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AQAP has both. "There's been no diminishing of their desire to attack the West," says Brennan. The Yemeni franchise is led by jihadists who fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1990s and who remain true to his vision of global holy war against the West. "These are pure al-Qaeda, the old-fashioned kind," says Ahmed Dahan, who heads Yemen's special forces. "They are the last of their breed." Some AQAP members trace their jihadi roots back to the first successful bomb plot attributed to bin Laden, a 1992 blast at a hotel in the Yemeni city of Aden that killed two Austrian tourists. Others came on board after 2000, when al-Qaeda earned local prestige by bombing the U.S.S. Cole in the harbor of Aden, killing 17 American sailors.
But if the politics of AQAP's fighters is frozen in time, their tactics are not. Their plots to strike on U.S. soil reveal a growing sophistication as well as a steadfast resolve. The first AQAP-trained underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was prevented from detonating the device on a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009; the following year, several bombs concealed in printer cartridges shipped from Yemen were found on cargo planes bound for the U.S.; this year, an Arab-British double agent helped break up a planned AQAP attack involving a new, harder-to-detect underwear bomb.
More insidiously, AQAP has used the Internet to reach out to malcontented Muslims in the U.S., urging them to take up the cause of holy war from inside the West. Before his death in September 2011 in a missile strike launched from a CIA drone, the Yemen-based preacher Anwar al-Awlaki had proved an especially effective online propagandist and recruiter: he is alleged to have influenced both the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who is alleged to have killed 13 people during a rampage, and the 2010 would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
The U.S. increased military and counterterrorism aid to Yemen after an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a in September 2008: six policemen and seven Yemeni civilians were killed, along with six attackers from the terrorist group Islamic Jihad in Yemen, a precursor to AQAP. Aid grew again after the first underwear-bomb plot in 2009. But just because the Americans were spending more money in Yemen, it doesn't mean they were making progress against al-Qaeda. The country's long-standing ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, channeled the funds chiefly to military units controlled by his son and nephew and did little to stamp out the terrorists. "Saleh worked out that as long as the Americans were worried about al-Qaeda, they would keep giving him free money," says political analyst al-Iryani. "This meant he had no incentive to do anything about [the jihadists]." Saleh turned down TIME's requests for an interview.
In turn, AQAP kept a low profile in Yemen and concentrated on attacking the U.S. Its fighters steered clear of urban centers, instead hiding out in the eastern desert, often under the protection of local tribesmen. They might abduct a foreign tourist, but their campaigns had little impact on the lives of ordinary Yemenis. This fed into local complacency about AQAP's motives. The U.S. war on terrorism wasn't Yemen's war.
The Battle Comes Home