But still the threat was ignored. Al-Wihayshi's efforts were taking place in the eastern governorates of Marib and al-Jawf, far from Yemen's centers of power, out of sight and unknown. In 2006, the year al-Wihayshi escaped and began to rebuild, U.S. funding to Yemen totaled a paltry $ 4.6 million, the lowest it had been since September 11.
Neither the United States nor Yemen treated the prison break as anything other than aberration, a one-off event with few long-term consequences. The continued neglect in the face of mounting evidence -- suicide attacks, assassinations, and statements of intent -- represents a failure of imagination on a colossal scale -- and the U.S. is still paying the price.
It would be another two years before U.S. officials realized that, once again, they had a serious problem in Yemen. In September 2008, seven men in two cars launched a well-organized assault on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which if not for the quick thinking and brave actions of a private Yemeni security guard, who was killed in the attack, might have been much bloodier than it was. A handful of civilians, including one American, were killed in the shootout along with all seven attackers.
Months later, in January 2009, two former Guantánamo Bay detainees, both of whom the U.S. had released, showed up in a video sitting beside al-Wihayshi and al-Raymi and together they announced the formation of a new regional organization, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Almost immediately, the newly merged group went after the man at the top of its hit list, Muhammad bin Nayyif, Saudi Arabia's deputy minister of the interior and the single biggest threat to its continued existence.
The ingenious assassination attempt used one of bin Nayyif's earlier successes against him. A Saudi militant, Abdullah Asiri, posing as a repentant member of AQAP, persuaded the prince that he wanted to surrender. During their subsequent meeting at a Ramadan banquet, Asiri convinced bin Nayyif that there were others like him in Yemen who just needed a word of assurance from the prince before they too would surrender. As soon as he got on the phone, the bomb Asiri had hidden in his rectum exploded, lightly wounding bin Nayyif (there is some dispute about the bomb's exact placement).
Elements of that attack were later incorporated into the attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Both bombs used PETN, a highly explosive chemical agent, and were likely built by Ibrahim Asiri, Abdullah's brother, and the man suspected of constructing the parcel bombs discovered last week.
The United States, faced with a difficult situation in Yemen and still playing catch-up from years of neglect, has been unable to find an adequate response to the AQAP threat. Early estimates of 300 members are, to judge by the summer of attacks in Yemen, far too conservative. President Barack Obama is overburdened with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is likely well aware of the disastrous consequences of invasion. He does not want to send U.S. troops into Yemen. He has opted instead for surgical strikes aimed at decapitating AQAP's leadership. Unfortunately, the series of airstrikes the United States orchestrated in late 2009 and early 2010 have only made the problem worse, boosting al-Qaeda's local recruiting appeal.
In one early strike, dozens of civilians were killed in a village in the south of Yemen. In another airstrike, a Yemeni government official was killed instead of the al-Qaeda member, who was supposedly the target. Both incidents have been used by AQAP's media wing as examples that Yemen is under Western military attack. Under this argument, Yemenis are compelled to fight the United States and its local allies in defense of Muslim lands.
Neither approach -- full invasion or surgical strikes -- will solve the problem of al-Qaeda terrorism in Yemen and make America safer. The United States and its allies have been lucky three times in just over a year. Counting on that luck holding is not a safe bet.