SANA, Yemen — The al-Qaida wing in Yemen that claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing last week of a Northwest Airlines flight has as many as 2,000 militants and sympathizers exploiting the country's economic and political chaos to create a base for jihad at the edge of the Persian Gulf, according to a Yemeni terrorism expert.
The group, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is the latest reincarnation of Islamist militant cells that have been active in Yemen for years.
The country has supplied extremists to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to terrorist networks stretching from North Africa to Europe. Yemen these days is attracting radicals to join an evolving extremist front in the Middle East.
"They were once just a group of radicals in Yemen looking to its mother in Afghanistan for advice," Saeed Ali O. Jemhi, an expert on militant groups, said in a recent interview in the Yemeni capital, Sana. "But the group's leadership in Yemen has improved. They have clear ideological and strategic plans."
The network has posted on its Web site that it was behind the Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a flight en route to Detroit from Amsterdam. The organization said the plot was retaliation for U.S. assistance to Yemen's military, which in recent weeks had launched airstrikes on training camps and safe houses that killed as many as 60 al-Qaida members.
Yemen's unrest, including a secessionist movement in the south and a civil war in the north, has given al-Qaida an ideal hub, especially in rugged rural and tribal regions where the government's reach is diminished.
The group, whose aim, analysts say, is to create an Islamic caliphate across the Persian Gulf and build a base to attack Western and Israeli interests, is operating just across the Red Sea from Somalia, where another al-Qaida branch has taken hold in the lawless Horn of Africa.
The scenario offers a number of concerns for Washington, and responses could include the possibility that U.S. counterterrorism agencies will deepen their roles in training Yemeni special forces, or that U.S. intelligence and military hardware will be used to attack militant targets inside Yemen.
"The majority of Yemenis sympathize with al-Qaida, especially over American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan," Jemhi said. "Al-Qaida is a growing threat with an ideology that other extremist groups can build upon."
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula became a more dangerous threat in 2006, when more than 20 militant operatives escaped from a Yemeni prison. Since then, the organization has joined extremists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, a Yemeni with ties to Osama bin Laden.
Al-Qaida's profile in the country rose sharply a year ago, when a former Guantanamo Bay detainee from Saudi Arabia, Said Ali al-Shihri, fled to Yemen to join al-Qaida and appeared in a video posted online.