The embattled regime in Yemen has boosted its cooperation with U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts in recent months as it tries to push back Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents who have captured towns and other territory in the impoverished nation, according to U.S. Defense officials.
The U.S. officials said Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, may have “overreached” by deploying its fighters to overwhelm local security forces in the southern province of Abyan. Better-equipped Yemeni troops have mounted operations in the area and killed a number of militants.
Yemen officials appear more willing to share intelligence with U.S. authorities since their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was evacuated to a hospital in Saudi Arabia in June after his palace was bombed, the officials said.
Saleh has not returned to Yemen, but protesters continue to demonstrate against his regime.
In return for the cooperation, U.S. officials are sharing more intelligence with their Yemeni counterparts, although it wasn’t immediately clear what role, if any, that has played in the Yemen government’s counteroffensive or the broader conflict in Yemen.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing national security matters, said the Pentagon is focused on finding militants who pose a threat to the West, and it is avoiding becoming entangled in Yemen’s internal political strife.
America’s role clearly is growing, however. In May, the radical Yemeni-based cleric Anwar Awlaki was targeted by a U.S. missile strike in Yemen.
He escaped injury and remains active.
Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and delivers fiery online sermons in English, has been linked to numerous terrorist plots, including the failed bombing of a Northwest flight bound for Detroit in December 2009 and a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, that left 13 people dead in November 2009.
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, the officials amplified comments last week by John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, who said “counter-terrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure.”
“The Yemenis have done a good job of finding and arresting and carrying out attacks against Al Qaeda types,” Brennan told the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a Washington trade group. “So even though Yemen is in the midst of this internal domestic turmoil ... the information is flowing back and forth. We’re sharing information.”
Brennan said that the Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen “is the most operationally active franchise that is out there right now.... It’s taking on many, many characteristics of a traditional insurgency.
“But then you have people within the organization like Awlaki who are determined to carry out attacks against the [U.S.] homeland.”
U.S. officials also have concluded that other Al Qaeda affiliates in Africa have begun cooperating with one another.
Gen. Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. Africa Command, said three militant groups in Africa -- the Shabab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Nigeria-based Boko Haram -- appear to be collaborating in training and operations. The three groups have said they want to target the U.S.
“I have questions about their capability to do so, but I have no question about their intent to do so,” Ham told Pentagon reporters at a separate event Wednesday.
U.S. intelligence agencies have intensified their efforts in Yemen and other African nations now that Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan has suffered heavy losses from CIA-launched missile strikes.
Michael Vickers, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, told the National Defense University at Ft. McNair, Va., on Tuesday that if U.S. operations continue at the current pace, “within 18 to 24 months, core Al Qaeda ... operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment.”