Yemen’s chaos is good news for Al Qaeda
The escalating violence in Yemen is hampering critical U.S. counter-terrorism operations and has given Al Qaeda’s most active affiliate increased opportunities for recruitment and plotting, current and former U.S. officials warn.
Yemeni forces trained by the U.S. to help hunt Islamic militants have been diverted to protect the beleaguered regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, making it more difficult to support American spying and special military operations. At the same time, the U.S. has been forced to evacuate nonessential personnel from its embassy in the capital, Sana.
“The trends are strongly negative,” Edmund Hull, U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said Thursday. “The government is in chaos and Al Qaeda’s operating space has expanded.”
Yemen is the first nation caught up in this year’s series of peaceful and violent uprisings across the Middle East where Al Qaeda appears to be gaining from the turmoil, experts said.
The rising chaos in Yemen after nearly four months of mostly peaceful street protests has become a growing worry for Washington. President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, is visiting the region this week to get a handle on what the White House called “the deteriorating situation in Yemen.”
Saleh has reneged on deals brokered by regional leaders and U.S. Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein to secure a peaceful end to the Yemeni president’s nearly 33 years in power, a tenure marked by a separatist rebellion in the south, a Shiite Muslim insurgency in the north and the emergence of an Al Qaeda faction with global reach.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney again called on Saleh “to begin the process of transferring power immediately. We continue to call on his government to cease and desist from using violence against peaceful protesters. And we remain very concerned about what’s happening there.”
Reports that Al Qaeda fighters have seized cities in recent days are “overblown,” U.S. officials said. Militants who have captured the southern port of Zinjibar are more likely local Islamists, said Leslie Campbell, Middle East director for the National Democratic Institute, a nonpartisan U.S. organization that works to support political and civic groups in Yemen.
But in the destitute, desolate land that was the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda doesn’t need to hold territory to plan attacks, analysts say.
“It’s the classic safe haven objective,” said Hull, “trying to re-create a situation similar to what they had in Afghanistan.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s Yemeni branch, has emerged since 2008 as the most significant threat with attempts to stage attacks on American soil, overshadowing branches in Pakistan and elsewhere, U.S. intelligence officials have said.
On Christmas Day 2009, for example, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, attempted to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit. The Yemeni group later said it was responsible for the bungled bombing, describing it as revenge for U.S. support for a Yemeni military offensive against Al Qaeda.
The Al Qaeda affiliate also claimed responsibility in October after U.S. and allied intelligence services, acting on a tip, helped find mail bombs that were disguised as ink toner cartridges aboard FedEx and UPS cargo planes headed from Yemen to the United States.
Last month, less than a week after Navy SEALs killed Bin Laden in Pakistan, U.S. forces in Yemen fired a missile from a drone aircraft that targeted, but failed to kill, one of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s most influential leaders, American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki.
The U.S. government forged its close partnership with Saleh’s authoritarian regime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, chiefly to gain support for counter-terrorism operations in a strategically important nation that borders critical waterways and the key oil-producing state of Saudi Arabia.
Over the years, U.S. special operations troops have been deployed to Yemen in growing numbers to train Saleh’s security forces and to help hunt Al Qaeda militants. The CIA also has built close ties to the country’s intelligence service, known as the Political Security Organization, or PSO, officials say.
But according to U.S. Embassy cables recently released by the website WikiLeaks, the PSO has been infiltrated by Al Qaeda supporters and sympathizers over the last decade. U.S. officials have also warned that Yemeni security forces have repeatedly orchestrated terrorist attacks within Yemen in order to manipulate domestic and foreign perceptions about Islamist dangers.
In a country riven by tribal rivalries, Saleh’s regime has been buffeted by months of protests and high-level defections by army commanders and other senior officials. The last two weeks of violence between government troops and armed tribesmen and other factions represents a sharp expansion of the conflict, and threatens to push the impoverished nation into civil war.
“The state’s authority is starting to melt away, and it’s those undergoverned spaces that Al Qaeda is going to seek out to plot, plan, train and mount operations,” said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.
The unrest hurts U.S. counter-terrorism efforts because it limits cooperation from Yemeni government officials, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. A U.S. counter-terrorism official said those efforts are continuing.
“The fact that the Yemenis are distracted by internal unrest doesn’t help,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. “But it doesn’t mean that joint counter-terrorism cooperation with Yemeni authorities has stopped entirely.”
About 250 to 300 people are believed to be members of Al Qaeda in Yemen, said Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001. For religious and tribal reasons, Yemen is not as hospitable an environment for Al Qaeda as the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, she said.
Nevertheless, the U.S. has made little headway in finding the group’s leaders.
Al Qaeda bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, for example, whose fingerprints reportedly were found on the explosive devices used in the Christmas Day 2009 “underwear bomb” and the 2010 parcel bombs, remains at large.
Hull, the former ambassador and author of “High-Value Target: Countering Al Qaeda in Yemen,” said Al Qaeda may find fertile ground for growth if Yemen slips further into civil warfare.
“I have not seen Al Qaeda in Yemen have as a strategy taking and formally controlling specific areas,” he said. “Rather, what I would expect is that they would just take advantage of the lack of government presence and authority and chaos and operating space so that they can carry out their objectives against us.”
U.S. options for reversing the situation in Yemen are limited, analysts said. A campaign of drone airstrikes, like the covert CIA war against militants in northwestern Pakistan, is not feasible because U.S. intelligence does not have the network of informants needed to pinpoint targets and support the attacks, analysts say.
“What you need to do is get beyond this impasse and get to a post-Saleh era in Yemen,” Hull said. “I hope it happens sooner [rather] than later because time is not an ally here. The longer it takes to do that, the more ungoverned space Al Qaeda will have occupied.”
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