Al Qaeda's robust terror organization in Yemen is recruiting from a pool of hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees who have fled war in their homeland, according to U.S. and Yemeni intelligence officials.
Approximately 700,000 Somali refugees have made Yemen their home, and that population is expected to continue to grow in the face of the collapse of the East African nation, Yemeni and intelligence officials told The Washington Examiner. A significant number of those Somali refugees are believed to be members of Al-Shabaab Mujahideen, an Islamist insurgency group with strong ties to al Qaeda.
Two American tourists were kidnapped by gunmen in Yemen Monday, and local officials said it was likely the group holding them had ties to al Qaeda. The abduction highlighted the growing danger of Islamic extremists in Yemen, experts said.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who was an adviser to President Obama on Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, said the Somali refugee crisis poses significant national security concerns for the United States, and a golden opportunity for al Qaeda.
Riedel, who visited the Gulf of Aden last winter, said that although Somali refugees hope that Yemen will be their first stop to a wealthier country, "most never get beyond Yemen. Among them are dozens of young extremists who become recruits for [al Qaeda Arabian Penninsula]."
Al Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia merged into a single organization in early 2009, intelligence officials said. It calls itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and is based in Yemen. A number of Somali militants enter Yemen "to train with AQAP," a U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed.
American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has emerged as a key player in al Qaeda's efforts to raise important new infrastructures in countries like Yemen which are outside the reach of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and where lawlessness and poverty prevail.
Al-Awalki, an American of Yemeni decent, is believed to be hiding in Yemen. U.S. intelligence officials say he is the new face of al Qaeda and recruits from the large number of Somali refugees entering that nation.
Al-Awlaki is the only American on the CIA's list of important targets to apprehend or kill. On Monday, in a video released by al Qaeda, al-Awalki, dressed in Yemeni traditional tribal clothing, called on believers to kill American soldiers and civilians.
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a recently published report, "There are increasing indications that al Qaeda is regrouping in Yemen and preparing to strike at Western and other targets."
A retired senior military official with direct knowledge of al Qaeda in Yemen said that as al Qaeda's recruiting pool grows, Western targets will become more vulnerable.
He said Somali refugees are just one group of potential recruits.
"With the Somali crisis in Yemen growing we have to be mindful of how these various groups, like Somalia's Al-Shabaab, are connecting, recruiting and developing ties to one another," the official said.
Another military official warned that the global links between the groups in Yemen pose a "significant danger to our own national security because the next attack in the U.S. may not come from someone we suspect but from a recruit born right here or someone else, like a Somali refugee," he said.
In April, The Examiner reported that 23 Somalis who entered Mexico illegally earlier in the year were believed headed for the U.S. after being released by Mexican authorities. Of the 23 Somalis, several were directly connected to Al-Shabaab, according to the law enforcement documents.
Intelligence suggested some were attempting to cross the southern border into the U.S. Intelligence officials say they have not been located.
Al Qaeda's ties with Somali refugees also have implications for the oil-rich Middle East.
Riedel warned that as al Qaeda solidifies its safe havens in Yemen and Somalia, it will become a growing danger to the shipping lanes in the world's most important waterways.
"Al Qaeda's leadership in Yemen has very ambitious plans to develop cooperation [with] the Shabab in Somalia so that al Qaeda can influence the control of the shipping lanes in the Bab al Mandab strait that separates Asia from Africa and which is the world's energy choke point," he said.