As the war on terrorism turns toward the Al Qaeda threat from Yemen, U.S. intelligence officials say that the country’s strategic location, lawlessness and instability may make it an even more problematic battleground than Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The impoverished nation, already struggling with civil war, has become a far more inviting haven for Al Qaeda fighters than even Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials say.
The severity of the threat -- and the United States’ deepening involvement -- were underscored by President Obama on Saturday as he declared a new counter-terrorism partnership with Yemen that will include more intelligence-sharing, training and possibly joint attacks against the rising Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Obama’s top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, arrived in Yemen on Saturday to meet with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and announce that the U.S. will sharply increase its counter-terrorism aid in the coming year.
The Yemeni government also deployed hundreds of troops into the mountainous Mareb province and other Al Qaeda strongholds as a show of its commitment.
Obama, offering new details on the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, said that the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda trained, equipped and dispatched the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up the Northwest Airlines plane.
The rise of Al Qaeda in Yemen is, in part, a product of the country’s central location. It lies at the heart of the Arab world and is far more hospitable than other militant strongholds in South Asia and Africa, where Arab operatives stick out from the locals.
But added to the combustible mix is a weak government that successive U.S. administrations have accused of being corrupt and reluctant -- at best -- to go after Al Qaeda. That has been the case not only in the country’s chaotic expanses, but also in the capital, where U.S. officials believe Yemeni authorities have aided numerous suspicious jailbreaks and outright releases of detained senior Al Qaeda members.
The result has been an intense -- and mutual -- distrust between Washington and Yemen’s capital, Sana, that has limited economic aid to a trickle, further complicating efforts to combat terrorist cells.
A senior Yemeni official cautioned that even the new military aid will not quickly alter the situation since it would take months, if not years, to produce results.
“It takes time to order the equipment and set up the programs,” he said.
While the group in Yemen still lacks the training and recruiting infrastructure to become as dangerous of a global threat as the “core” Al Qaeda along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, U.S. officials believe it may be only a matter of time.
“If left unaddressed, that will happen,” said Kenneth Wainstein, President Bush’s top counter-terrorism advisor. “It is right there in the middle of everything, and right where Al Qaeda wants to be, on the Arabian peninsula, near Mecca” -- the Saudi Arabian city that is Islam’s holiest place.
The ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, Yemen has long been a haven for a small group of Al Qaeda fighters, including the suicide bombers who blew a hole in the U.S. destroyer Cole in October 2000, killing 17 sailors.
U.S. officials said those cells had largely been dismantled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with the intermittent cooperation of the Yemeni government.
But they have returned in recent years, along with new fighters that include battle-hardened veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and neighboring Saudi Arabia, as well as detainees released from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, senior administration and intelligence officials say.
Over the last two years, those officials say, the cells have coalesced into a well-equipped and well-funded network capable of launching many more attacks in Yemen and the region.
The growing capabilities and aspirations of the network were demonstrated in the Christmas Day bombing attempt. The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had studied in the country and had been in contact with Al Qaeda leaders there.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula later claimed responsibility for the attempt.
U.S. officials are also growing concerned about the increasing power of clerics in Yemen to recruit and radicalize Muslims worldwide. American-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki is believed to be a key player in the Al Qaeda affiliate.
The FBI is investigating connections between Awlaki and both Abdulmutallab and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November.
Yemeni clerics are also believed to have influenced Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Muslim convert who lived in Yemen before allegedly shooting two soldiers at a U.S. Army recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., last June, killing one of them.
“Yemen has a huge problem with terrorism, a heavy presence of Al Qaeda, and we are fighting them,” said the senior Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations between the U.S. and Yemen. “We need to do more, but the world community, I think, also needs to do more.”
How to do that is still unclear. The country is riddled with so much governmental corruption that Washington fears U.S. aid and counter-terrorism money would simply disappear, according to U.S. officials and formal findings by government and nonprofit watchdog groups.
Those suspicions, in part, resulted in no money for direct military assistance and only $9 million in U.S. economic aid in 2008, the senior Yemeni official said. More U.S. aid was given in 2009, along with stepped-up military coordination.
Yemeni President Saleh, who has run the country since it was declared a republic in 1990, is already fighting a long-running and expensive civil war in the south and a rebellion by Shiite Houthi fighters in the north.
That has made him reluctant to go after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, U.S. intelligence officials say, particularly because its leaders are protected by powerful tribes that have governed the region for thousands of years.
Any concerted effort to go after them, especially with military force, could provoke the tribes to turn on Saleh’s government, they say.
The situation has made the Obama administration unwilling to repatriate the dozens of Yemeni detainees still held at Guantanamo Bay, for fear that they will quickly return to the battlefield.
Wainstein, who met several times with Yemeni leaders, said there had been “some bright spots” in a joint effort to solve the growing Al Qaeda problem in the region.
“But this isn’t a matter of just turning on a switch,” he said. “They have a number of threats they are juggling. It’s our job to encourage them to focus their energies and provide them the support they need to sustain an effort to root out Al Qaeda.”
The Obama administration has not said publicly how it plans to attack Al Qaeda in Yemen, but several U.S. and Yemeni officials said direct U.S. military action was not being contemplated.
“They don’t need to do that, because we are doing the work,” the senior Yemeni official said.
But he acknowledged his government had grave concerns about its lack of authority in the remote areas where tribal leaders are protecting Al Qaeda.
He said the best solution would be to build roads, schools and hospitals to connect them with the rest of the country. Yemen has pleaded for such help for years, but was told Washington could not afford to help because of the wars in Iraq and then Afghanistan, he said.
The United States also has focused more of its own intelligence and military assets on the country -- with some success.
Just before Christmas, U.S. intelligence analysts listening in on Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen intercepted communications indicating a gathering of the masterminds of the Yemen network, who were discussing several imminent suicide bombings against Western targets in that country.
The intercepts gave analysts the tip they had been waiting months for, and Yemen launched an attack, killing as many as 30 suspected militants. Top leaders and Awlaki, however, apparently survived.
U.S. and Yemeni officials said in interviews that the strike thwarted several attacks.
“The action that was taken stopped those particular threats. That was a success,” said one U.S. counter-terrorism official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the strike publicly. “But the danger in that country by no means has evaporated.”
But other military efforts have been less successful. In July, Yemen sent tanks and artillery into Mareb province -- and they were routed, according to some analysts.
The Yemeni official would not discuss the outcome of that campaign, but Awlaki later exulted on his website that the military effort had backfired, and that tribesmen had protected the Al Qaeda fighters and seized truckloads of weapons.
“May this be the beginning of the greatest Jihad, the Jihad of the Arabian Peninsula that would free the heart of the Islamic world from the tyrants who are . . . standing between us and victory,” he wrote.