SANAA, Yemen — In the words of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, it was a plot that aimed to change history.
Intercepted communications between Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin’s successor as the head of al Qaida, and Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based franchise of the terrorist group, appeared to indicate an impending operation of mammoth proportions.
Usually staid European nations shuttered their embassies in Sanaa; the United States and the United Kingdom went as far as airlifting staff from the Yemeni capital. The American government launched airstrikes on the country, hitting 10 targets in five provinces in the span of 15 days. Spy planes hovered in Sanaa’s skies.
The apparent plot seemed a manifestation of the U.S. government’s greatest fears regarding the terrorist group that former CIA director David Petraeus once dubbed the “most dangerous node in the global jihad.”
But many Yemenis – ranging from tribesmen angered by the increase in drone activity to government officials offended by the tacit message of distrust sent by the U.S.’s and United Kingdom’s rapid pullouts – criticized Washington’s response as an overreaction.
The August incident underscored the sometimes-confusing nature of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, its goals and its real strength.
“They seem to be focusing on building a local base: They find a vacuum and they fill it,” Abdulghani al Iryani, a Sanaa-based political analyst, said of the group. “This makes them even more dangerous than they were before.”
For its part, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula appears to relish the spotlight. The group has released a series of written, video and audio statements in recent days, and analysts have said the scope of the group’s rhetoric underscores its wider ambitions.
The result of a 2009 merger of al Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is most notorious for its role in a botched attempt to blow up an American passenger airplane on Christmas Day of that year, with the “underwear bomber.” Yemen-based al Qaida operatives previously had launched numerous attacks on American targets, most notoriously the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and a 2008 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, before al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was formed.
The recent statements come in the aftermath of a bombing earlier this week that targeted a bus carrying members of the Yemeni air force to their base on the outskirts of Sanaa. Yemeni officials said they suspected that al Qaida operatives were behind the blast, which left one person dead and dozens wounded.
In addition, dozens of Yemeni military and security officers have been assassinated this year alone. The attacks range from assaults by motorcycle-riding gunmen to vehicle bombs broadly similar to Sunday’s attack; the government has largely blamed these other attacks on al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
There has yet to be any claim of responsibility for Sunday’s bombing, however, and it didn’t appear to be mentioned in recent remarks issued by the group.
“AQAP’s messages appear to be aimed at a broader international audience, rather than just at Yemeni themselves,” said Fernando Carvajal, a Sanaa-based Yemen analyst. “These types of attacks present a complex scenario. They appear disconnected from the messages published by AQAP.”
In those recent messages, high-ranking clerics focused on recent events in the region, noting that jihadist fighters had made gains in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and slamming the Saudi government for backing the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. They cast the actions of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as only a single front in a global battle against the U.S. and its allies, seizing on the evacuation of embassy staff to portray the United States as a paper tiger.
“Now America is running from Afghanistan amidst heavy military defeat as the Islamic Emirate returns under the leadership of the commander of the faithful, Mullah Omar,” cleric Hareth al Nathari said in one of the group’s video statements, referring to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. “And in Yemen . . . America evacuated its citizens and intelligence officers by a military cargo plane, a scene indicating the severity of the terror and panic resulting from the anger of the Islamic world due to its crimes against Muslims.”
A subsequent statement attributed to al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that was posted on an online jihadist forum went even further, casting claims of an impending operation as “propaganda” aimed at justifying American military action.
While potential plots against Western targets tend to take center stage in international discussions, in Yemen itself the focus tends to fall on a far quieter form of activity by the group.
Acknowledging that American drone strikes and Yemeni military actions have increased the pressure on al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, many analysts of the group have stressed that such acts ultimately have done little more than spur the group to change tactics.
While the group’s statements are filled with lofty rhetoric and grand ambitions, when it comes to actions much of its attention is locally focused.
Since a spring 2012 offensive saw Yemeni troops dislodge militants affiliated with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from former strongholds in the southern province of Abyan, the group has expanded its presence in rural areas across the country, capitalizing on simmering discontent with the central government and building support among locals.
Pointing to the gains the terrorist group has made, many analysts argue that its primary priority appears to be community relations and taking advantage of gaps left by the central government. But even if this indicates that striking the West may have taken a backseat for now, they stress that it means the group will only be far better placed to do so in the future.
“What appears to be happening is that AQAP has seen their efforts at external operations curtailed and has responded by shifting strategy,” analyst Iryani said.
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron