The Obama administration has in recent months stepped up its intelligence support and funding of Yemeni security forces in a bid to counter threats by al Qaeda to attack Western and Arab targets in the Gulf.
The US is stepping up its efforts to combat al Qaeda in Yemen
Yemeni officials say more than 30 operatives of al Qaeda's Yemeni offshoot, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were killed and 29 others captured in raids in recent weeks that foiled attacks on the British embassy in the capital Sana'a and Yemeni oil facilities. Human rights activists and al Qaeda charge that scores of innocent civilians died in the attacks.
US support for the raids reflects concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that multiple conflicts in Yemen - including the fight against al Qaeda, a five-year war against tribal rebels in the north that has dragged neighboring Saudi Arabia into the hostilities, a secession movement in the south, rampant inflation and unemployment, dwindling oil revenues and an acute water shortage - could turn Yemen into the strategic region's next failed state alongside Somalia.
"We are already a failed state. We can no longer protect the rights of our citizens," said Yemeni opposition politician Abubakr Badeeb. "Al Qaeda is renewing itself and has sympathizers in the Yemeni security and intelligence forces," terrorism expert Said Ali Jemhi told Deutsche Welle.
Analysts say the US intelligence and military support kicked in since the Yemeni government recently bowed to US, European and Saudi pressure to focus more on battling al Qaeda rather than exclusively on squashing a tribal revolt in the north by Al-Houthi rebels and secession in the south. Yemeni officials complained as recently as October that the country's allies were ignoring problems that constituted as much a threat to Yemen's stability and territorial integrity as does al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda threatens regional stability
Yemeni security forces are concerned that al Qaeda is growing in strength
Yet, al Qaeda threatens both regional stability and international security while other rebel groups in the country constitute primarily a threat to Yemen itself. "The Houthi rebellion is not a threat to Saudi Arabia, overall instability in Yemen is," Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Deutsche Welle.
Analysts say the Yemeni concession was motivated in part by reports from Arab and Western intelligence agencies that a growing number of Islamist militants were moving from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen. "The air strikes signal a dramatic change in the war on terrorism in Yemen," Mohammed Saif Haidar, a Yemeni researcher who focuses on al Qaeda, told Deutsche Welle.
The Pentagon allocated this year $70 million (48 million euros) to support Yemeni security forces. In a bid to avoid an anti-US backlash that would fuel Yemen's multiple conflicts, the US is seeking to maintain a low-key presence. Increased activity at the US embassy in Sana'a as witnessed by this reporter on several trips to Yemen in recent months may be one of the most visible indications of stepped-up US activity in Yemen.
Nonetheless, US officials have begun to acknowledge their country's greater involvement in fighting al Qaeda in Yemen. Speaking on US television, US Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman said "the United States had a growing presence" in Yemen that involved special operations forces and intelligence agents.
Yemen could be the next Afghanistan
One of a string of US officials and politicians to have recently visited Sana'a, Lieberman quoted a US official in the Yemeni capital as saying that "Iraq was yesterday's war. Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war." Earlier, US National Counter Terrorism Center Director Mark Leiter described Yemen in congressional testimony as "a key battleground and potential regional base of operations from which al Qaeda can plan attacks, train recruits, and facilitate the movement of operatives."
The foiled Christmas Day airplane bombing appears to confirm Leiter's description although the link between al Qaeda and Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, accused of igniting explosives on the Northwest flight, remains as yet tenuous. US law enforcement agents are investigating Abdulmutallab's claim that he was trained to use the explosives in Yemen where al Qaeda operatives gave him the device with which he boarded the Detroit-bound flight.
Yemen's anti-AQAP operations target the group's leadership. A pre-Christmas raid on an alleged AQAP leadership meeting failed to kill AQAP leader Nasser Al-Wahayshi or Anwar al-Awlaqi, a militant American imam of Yemeni descent who is believed to have been at the meeting although he is not an AQAP member. Al-Awlaqi reportedly was in email contact with Maj. Nidal Hasan before the US Army psychiatrist was charged with killing 13 people in a shooting attack at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, in November.
Analysts say the foiled airplane bombing and the Fort Hood shooting reflect a new strategy in which individual AQAP operatives employing small amounts of explosives attack their targets. The strategy was first implemented when a Saudi AQAP member last August attempted to kill Deputy Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in a failed suicide attack using explosives concealed in his underpants.
Al Qaeda targeting Westerners in Gulf region
Al Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen is targeting Western interests throughout the Gulf region
The analysts say AQAP may be reverting to the targeting of expatriates in the Gulf akin to the suicide attacks in 2003 and 2004 on expatriate compounds in Saudi Arabia. Those attacks undermined public empathy for the group and sparked a successful Saudi crackdown. Remnants of the Saudi militant group shifted to Yemen and in early 2009 merged with Yemeni al Qaeda operatives to form AQAP.
In an indication of AQAP's relative strength, Yemeni officials cautioned this reporter in October not to visit the central province of Mareb because they could not guarantee his safety. "Yemen is rapidly becoming an important front" for al Qaeda because the government "is less and less able to exercise control throughout the complete territory of the country," said Yemen expert Boucek.
AQAP's strength poses not only a security challenge to the Obama administration but also a political headache. It threatens to derail the possible transfer of more than 100 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo Bay back to their homeland, a key part of President Barack Obama's effort to shut down the controversial facility.
US officials fear that Yemen's embattled government may not be able to control the detainees or, worse even, that sympathetic security officials could simply release them. At least two Saudis released from Guantanamo have since joined AQAP. One of them, Said Ali al-Shihri, is believed to have been involved in a 2008 attack on the US embassy in Sana'a.
AQAP leader Al Wahayshi, writing in the October edition of Sada al-Malahim (Echo of War), the group's magazine, laid out AQAP's new terrorist tactics and urged militants to attack Gulf leaders and expatriates as well as Western air and ground transport.
"You do not need to make a huge effort, or spend large amounts of money to assemble 10 grams of explosives. ... The (necessary) materials can be found in your mother's kitchen. Shape the material into a grenade that you can throw or ignite with a timer from a distance or a suicide belt… Attack any tyrant, den of intelligence forces, prince, minister, or crusader wherever you find them as well as airports in western crusader countries that participated in the war against Muslims, their planes, residential complexes or subways," Al-Wahayshi said.
Analysts warn that US involvement in military operations aimed to stop AQAP in its tracks could boomerang if they involve increased civilian casualties given the Yemen government's fragility. Princeton University Yemen expert Gregory Johnson told Deutsche Welle that pictures of dead women and children such as the ones that circulated after the most recent raids could make "recruiting a field day for al Qaeda."
Author: James M. Dorsey
Editor: Rob Mudge