U.S. Widens Terror War to Yemen, a Qaeda Bastion
By ERIC SCHMITT and ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: December 27, 2009
WASHINGTON — In the midst of two unfinished major wars, the United States has quietly opened a third, largely covert front against Al Qaeda in Yemen.
A year ago, the Central Intelligence Agency sent several of its top field operatives with counterterrorism experience to the country, according a former top agency official. At the same time, some of the most secretive Special Operations commandos have begun training Yemeni security forces in counterterrorism tactics, senior military officers said.
The Pentagon is spending more than $70 million over the next 18 months, and using teams of Special Forces, to train and equip Yemeni military, Interior Ministry and coast guard forces, more than doubling previous military aid levels.
As American investigators sought to corroborate the claims of a 23-year-old Nigerian man that Qaeda leaders in Yemen had trained and equipped him to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines jet on Christmas Day, the plot casts a spotlight on the Obama administration’s complicated relationship with Yemen.
The country has long been a refuge for jihadists, in part because Yemen’s government welcomed returning Islamist fighters who had fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The Yemen port of Aden was the site of the audacious bombing of the American destroyer Cole in October 2000 by Qaeda militants, which killed 17 sailors.
But Qaeda militants have made much more focused efforts to build a base in Yemen in recent years, drawing recruits from throughout the region and mounting attacks more frequently on foreign embassies and other targets. The White House is seeking to nurture enduring ties with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and prod him to combat the local Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, even as his impoverished country grapples with seemingly intractable internal turmoil.
With fears also growing of a resurgent Islamist extremism in nearby Somalia and East Africa, administration officials and American lawmakers said Yemen could become Al Qaeda’s next operational and training hub, rivaling the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where the organization’s top leaders operate.
“Yemen now becomes one of the centers of that fight,” said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who visited the country in August. “We have a growing presence there, and we have to, of Special Operations, Green Berets, intelligence,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
American and Yemeni officials said that a pivotal point in the relationship was reached in late summer after separate secret visits to Yemen by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American regional commander, and John O. Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser.
President Saleh agreed to expanded overt and covert assistance in response to growing pressure from the United States and Yemen’s neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, from which many Qaeda operatives had fled to Yemen, as well as a rising threat against the country’s political inner circle, the officials said.
“Yemen’s security problems won’t just stay in Yemen,” said Christopher Boucek, who studies Yemen as an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “They’re regional problems and they affect Western interests.”
Al Qaeda’s profile in Yemen rose sharply a year ago, when a former Guantánamo Bay detainee from Saudi Arabia, Said Ali al-Shihri, fled to Yemen to join Al Qaeda and appeared in a video posted online. Several other former Guantánamo detainees have also joined the group.
Yemen’s remote areas are notoriously lawless, but the country’s chaos has worsened in the past two years, as the government struggles with an armed rebellion in the northwest and a rising secessionist movement in the south. Yemen is running out of oil, and the government’s dwindling finances have affected its ability to strike at Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, there have been increasing Yemeni ties to plots against the United States. A Muslim man charged in the June 1 killing of a soldier at a recruiting center in a mall in Little Rock, Ark., had traveled to Yemen, prompting a review by the F.B.I. of other domestic extremists who had visited the country.
A radical cleric in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, has been linked to numerous terrorism suspects, including Nidal Malik Hasan, the American Army major who faces murder charges in the shooting deaths of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November.
In the latest issue of Sada al-Malahim, the Internet magazine of the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, the group’s leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, praised the use of small bombs — not just big ones — to attack an enemy, in an eerie foreshadowing of Friday’s episode on the plane to Detroit.
Yemen escalated its campaign against Al Qaeda with major airstrikes on Dec. 17 and last Thursday that killed more than 60 militants.
American officials have been coy about the role of the United States in the strikes, saying that they have provided intelligence and “firepower” for the efforts.
Yemen’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, said Sunday that Yemeni military cooperation with the United States and Saudi Arabia had increased in recent months as fresh intelligence confirmed Al Qaeda’s greater assertiveness in the country.
“There was intelligence that they were targeting the British Embassy and a number of government institutions as well as private schools,” Mr. Qirbi said in a telephone interview. “The second reason is that they have become more vocal, trying to show that they can undertake terrorist activities in an open fashion. So the government had to respond to that.”
The recent airstrikes were planned for two or three months, Mr. Qirbi said, but could not take place until there was fresh intelligence about the location of the Qaeda operatives who were the targets.
He called that intelligence — which included information provided by the United States — “the most important element” in the successful strike on the Qaeda members.
Mr. Qirbi added that although the United States provided Yemen with military hardware, the airstrikes were carried out by the Yemeni military alone.
Although the most important intelligence came from the United States and Saudi Arabia, other countries in the region have increased their financial assistance in recent months to help Yemen, said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “There was a fear inside and outside Yemen that Al Qaeda was taking new ground, establishing training centers, making some parts of Yemen no-go areas,” Mr. Alani said. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in particular provided assistance, he said, because “they feel that sooner or later they will become targets too.”
In the past year, Al Qaeda has killed six intelligence officers in the provinces where it is based, part of an unmistakable campaign by the group to secure its sanctuary there, Mr. Alani said. The intelligence officers were trying to gather information on the group, and to disrupt its growing links with local tribes — a significant part of its strategy, Mr. Alani added.
The airstrikes of the past two weeks have been successful but have come at a price, Yemeni officials said. “They have been hit hard, but they have not yet been disabled,” said one high-ranking Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic issues involved. “The problem is that the involvement of the United States creates sympathy for Al Qaeda. The cooperation is necessary — but there is no doubt that it has an effect for the common man. He sympathizes with Al Qaeda.”
As if to reaffirm that message, Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate released a statement to Internet sites on Sunday that put strong emphasis on the American role in the recent raids, deriding the Yemeni government for claiming responsibility.