Yemen dismisses Al Qaeda threat as ‘exaggerated’
Yemeni officials on Sunday dismissed the threat posed by Al Qaeda in their country as “exaggerated” and downplayed the possibility of cooperating closely with the United States in fighting Islamic militants, even as the U.S. and Britain temporarily closed their diplomatic outposts in Yemen because of unspecified Al Qaeda threats.
The statements by Yemen’s foreign minister, chief of national security and Interior Ministry came a day after the region’s top American military commander vowed to step up U.S. military support for the beleaguered Arabian Peninsula nation.
Analysts said the Yemeni statements reflected domestic political concerns about President Ali Abdullah Saleh appearing weak and beholden to the West as he faces numerous political challenges.
The group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the failed attempt at bombing a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day. The alleged attacker’s claim that he was tutored in Yemen set off alarm bells in Western capitals about the relatively lawless nation of 23 million, which is also facing an insurgency in the north and a separatist movement in the south.
U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus visited Yemen on Saturday and vowed to give Saleh increased aid to fight Al Qaeda. His promise was echoed by President Obama, who said the United States would step up intelligence-sharing and training of Yemeni forces and perhaps carry out joint attacks against militants in the region.
But Yemeni officials Sunday appeared to rebuff any close cooperation with the West. Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi told a government-run newspaper that his country welcomed intelligence-sharing but had made no commitment to conducting anti-terrorism operations in conjunction with the West.
“Yemen has its own short-term and long-term schemes to tackle terrorists anywhere in the republic that only call for intelligence and information coordination with other countries,” he told the daily newspaper Politics, the official Saba news agency reported.
A statement posted to the U.S. Embassy website cited “ongoing threats by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack American interests in Yemen.” The British Foreign Office confirmed that its embassy had been closed for security reasons and said discussions would be held today on when to reopen the facility.
Both diplomatic missions in Sana, the Yemeni capital, normally are open Saturday through Wednesday.
The U.S. Embassy has been the site of attacks in the past. At least 16 people died there in a Sept. 17, 2008, car bomb attack that was claimed by Al Qaeda. Three mortar rounds missed the embassy and crashed into a nearby high school for girls in March 2008, killing a security guard. Police and alleged Al Qaeda militants exchanged small-arms fire near the embassy a year ago.
On Sunday, Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor said the U.S. had evidence of a viable threat against the embassy, which led to the decision to close it.
“There are indications that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is targeting our embassy and targeting our personnel,” John Brennan said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding: “We’re not going to take any chances with the lives of our diplomats and others who are at that embassy.”
Asked whether Americans in the country are safe, Brennan said, “I think until the Yemeni government gets on top of the situation with Al Qaeda, there is a risk of attacks. A number of tourists have been, in fact, kidnapped. A number of tourists have been killed.”
But Yemen’s Interior Ministry posted a message to its website Sunday boasting that Al Qaeda militants were “under surveillance around the clock.”
And Saleh’s national security chief, Ali Anisi, said Sunday that Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was “exaggerated” and touted the success of his nation’s forces in stemming terrorism, according to an account of his comments reported by Saba news agency.
He reportedly insisted that Yemen was not a haven for Al Qaeda and pointed to “preemptive operations against militants which thwarted planned attacks on vital domestic and foreign interests in the country.”
According to Saba, he said that only 40% of the five dozen attempted terrorist attacks in the country since 1992 had succeeded.
Analysts say the increased focus on Yemen’s security situation creates a dilemma for Saleh, who is worried about appearing to cede sovereignty to the Americans when he is being politically assailed from all segments of the population.
“It’s about control,” said Abdullah Faqih, a professor of political science at Sana University. “The international actors need to assure the Yemeni government about its control. They don’t want to give concessions” to their rivals in the north or south.
A member of a smaller Shiite Muslim sect, Saleh has been accused for years of gaining political allies by turning a blind eye to the growing influence of Sunni extremists who have begun enforcing Islamic dress codes and setting up religious schools.
Qirbi, the foreign minister, emphasized in the interview published Sunday his nation’s “continuing rehabilitation of and advising misled terrorists,” a reference to its controversial program of re-educating and releasing convicted Islamic militants, some once held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. About 90 Yemeni detainees are still being held at Guantanamo.
Faqih suggested that the United States and Britain announced the temporary closures of their embassies as a way of turning up the heat on Saleh, whose government depends on international assistance to combat a number of issues, including piracy off its Gulf of Aden coast and a drought along its mountain ridges.
“This could also be a kind of pressure,” he said. “If the World Bank decides to close its office, the country might collapse.”
Saleh has presided for decades over the Arab world’s poorest nation, a generally lawless and mountainous land that faces vast unemployment, high birthrates and a plummeting water supply. Rampant corruption and festering tribal disputes exacerbate the problems.
U.S. officials have limited direct aid to Yemen in the past for fear it would disappear into a government widely considered corrupt and unaccountable. But Washington increased the total anti-terrorism assistance from $4.6 million in 2006 to $67 million in 2009, according to the Pentagon.
Following a Dec. 24 airstrike against suspected Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, which killed 30 and was suspected by many of having been directed by Americans, some Yemenis fear U.S. involvement could further destabilize their country.
“We’re afraid that you will repeat the same mistake as in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Mohamed Abdul-Malik Mutawakil, a political scientist at Sana University. “The real challenge is to correct the situation. If you come to Yemen and you push for reform, justice, political change, a better economy, then you will pull the rug out from under Al Qaeda.”
Jim Tankersley in the Tribune Washington Bureau and Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.