Unrest in Yemen Seen as Opening to Qaeda Branchhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
WASHINGTON — Counterterrorism operations in Yemen have ground to a halt, allowing Al Qaeda’s deadliest branch outside of Pakistan to operate more freely inside the country and to increase plotting for possible attacks against Europe and the United States, American diplomats, intelligence analysts and counterterrorism officials say.
In the political tumult surrounding Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, many Yemeni troops have abandoned their posts or have been summoned to the capital, Sana, to help support the tottering government, the officials said. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s affiliate, has stepped in to fill this power vacuum, and Yemeni security forces have come under increased attacks in recent weeks.
A small but steadily growing stream of Qaeda fighters and lower-level commanders from other parts of the world, including Pakistan, are making their way to Yemen to join the fight there, although American intelligence officials are divided on whether the political crisis in Yemen is drawing more insurgents than would be traveling there under normal conditions.
Taken together, these developments have raised increasing alarm in the Obama administration, which is in the delicate position of trying to ease Mr. Saleh out of power, but in a way to ensure that counterterrorism operations in Yemen will continue unimpeded. These developments may also help explain why the United States has become less willing to support Mr. Saleh, a close ally, given that his value in fighting terrorism has been diminished since demonstrations swept his country.
Some experts on Yemen who have observed Mr. Saleh’s long domination through political shrewdness speculated that he might be deliberately withdrawing his forces from pursuing Al Qaeda to worsen the sense of crisis and force the Americans to back him, rather than push him toward the exits.
But a senior American military officer with access to classified intelligence reports discounted those doubts on Monday: “This is a reflection of the turmoil in the country, not some political decision to stop.”
Mr. Saleh’s son and three nephews are in charge of four of Yemen’s main security and counterterrorism agencies, including the Republican Guard and the Central Security Forces, which are trained and equipped by the United States. If they were forced to step down as part of any deal to remove Mr. Saleh, American officials acknowledge that the country’s counterterrorism efforts would be left in the hands of untested lieutenants.
“We have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said March 27 on ABC’s “This Week.” “So if that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we’ll face some additional challenges out of Yemen. There’s no question about it. It’s a real problem.”
Perhaps most worrisome, American intelligence officials have collected information from informants and electronic intercepts that Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has increased planning discussions about another attack. This increased threat “chatter,” as intelligence officials call the reports, was first reported by The Washington Post late last month, but officials say the trend has continued since then.
The Qaeda group in Yemen is responsible for failed plots to blow up a commercial airliner as it approached Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, and for planting printer cartridges packed with explosives on cargo planes bound for Chicago last October.
The United States now has about 75 Special Forces trainers and support personnel in Yemen, as well as an unspecified number of Central Intelligence Agency operatives. The Americans in Yemen are working closely with dozens of British special forces and intelligence officers, as well as operatives from Saudi Arabia’s spy agencies. While the Americans largely provide intelligence, the Yemeni counterterrorism troops have conducted raids and attacks on suspected terrorists in recent months.
The suspension of these Yemeni counterterrorism operations and the heightened Al Qaeda activity have prompted the United States Central Command to dust off plans to resume airstrikes against top Qaeda targets if the United States receives solid intelligence about the location of senior militants, a senior military official said.
The United States has not carried out such airstrikes in Yemen since last May, when an attack accidentally killed a deputy governor and set off a huge political dispute with Mr. Saleh. Last year, the United States quietly began patrolling Yemen with armed Predator drones.
One top insurgent on the American target list is Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric who is a top propagandist for Al Qaeda. Last Wednesday, Mr. Awlaki broke his silence on the uprisings in the Arab world to speak glowingly in a new issue of the English-language Qaeda magazine Inspire about the toppling of autocratic governments.
Pentagon officials said that the chaotic security conditions in the country might embolden senior Qaeda officials in Yemen to come out of hiding. “If we have Awlaki in our sights, we’ll take a shot,” the senior American military officer said on Monday.
Over the past year, however, the American Special Forces in Yemen have shifted their focus to help the Yemeni security forces carrying out the counterterrorism missions. But those programs to train and assist the Yemenis have also been suspended in the wake of the political tumult. The American Special Forces soldiers are keeping a low profile but are maintaining ties with midlevel and senior Yemeni officers, and provide information on how the military is reacting to the upheaval.
American officials privately concede they have only a marginal influence on Mr. Saleh’s fight for his political survival and exit from power. At best, these officials say, the Americans are looking to identify and carefully support competent lower-ranking officers and civilian officials who could take over the security agencies if Mr. Saleh’s relatives are forced to flee.
Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton scholar who closely tracks militants in Yemen, said the United States’ narrow focus on combating Al Qaeda through military operations overseen by Mr. Saleh and his family means its position could be precarious in a post-Saleh Yemen.
“The U.S. idea of tying counterterrorism to this one family has not been the best way to approach the Al Qaeda problem,” said Mr. Johnsen, who has argued for greater focus on development aid for the impoverished country.
The Yemeni government’s already weak reach is withering by the day, as violent convulsions rack several parts of the impoverished country. American officials said they were watching unrest in Shabwa Province, a Qaeda stronghold, as well as in Jaar, a city in the southern province of Abyan where Al Qaeda is known to have set up a base.An officer in Yemen’s counterterrorism forces said his unit had not been deployed and was on standby, even though much of the south was apparently outside government control and jihadists had apparently declared a separate emirate in Abyan. Yemeni counterterrorism officers would like to respond, but “we are only door-kickers,” he said. “We need support from the army, and the army is busy splitting.”