WASHINGTON – As the war on terrorism turns toward the al-Qaida threat from Yemen, U.S. intelligence officials say that the country’s strategic location, lawlessness and instability may make it an even more problematic battleground than Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The impoverished nation, already struggling with civil war, has become a far more inviting haven for al-Qaida fighters than even Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials say.
The severity of the threat – and the United States’ deepening involvement – were underscored by President Barack Obama on Saturday as he declared a new counterterrorism partnership with Yemen that will include more intelligence sharing, training and possibly joint attacks against the rising al-Qaida affiliate in the region, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Obama’s top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, arrived in Yemen on Saturday to meet with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and announce that the U.S. will sharply increase its counterterrorism aid in the coming year. The Yemeni government also deployed hundreds of troops into the mountainous Marib province and other al-Qaida strongholds as a show of its commitment.
Obama, offering new details on the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, said that the Yemen branch of al-Qaida trained, equipped and dispatched the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up the Northwest Airlines plane.
The rise of al-Qaida in Yemen is, in part, a product of the country’s central location. It lies at the heart of the Arab world and is far more hospitable than other militant strongholds in South Asia and Africa, where Arab operatives stick out from the locals.
But added to the combustible mix is a weak government that successive U.S. administrations have accused of being corrupt and reluctant, at best, to go after al-Qaida. That has been the case not only in the country’s chaotic expanses, but also in the capital, where U.S. officials believe Yemeni authorities have aided numerous suspicious jailbreaks and outright releases of detained senior al-Qaida members.
The result has been an intense – and mutual – distrust between Washington and Sana that has limited economic aid to a trickle, further exacerbating efforts to combat terrorist cells.
A senior Yemeni official cautioned that even the new military aid will not quickly alter the situation since it will take months, if not years, to produce results. “It takes time to order the equipment and set up the programs,” he said.
While the group in Yemen still lacks the training and recruiting infrastructure to become as dangerous a global threat as the “core” al-Qaida along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, U.S. officials believe it may be only a matter of time.
“If left unaddressed, that will happen,” said Kenneth Wainstein, President George W. Bush’s top counterterrorism adviser. “It is right there in the middle of everything, and right where al-Qaida wants to be, on the Arabian peninsula, near Mecca,” the Saudi Arabian city that is Islam’s holiest place.
The ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, Yemen has long been a haven for a small group of al-Qaida fighters, including suicide bombers who blew a hole in the U.S. destroyer Cole in October 2000, killing 17 sailors.
U.S. officials said those cells had largely been dismantled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with the intermittent cooperation of the Yemeni government.
But they have returned in recent years, along with new fighters that include battle-hardened veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and neighboring Saudi Arabia, as well as detainees released from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, senior administration and intelligence officials say.
Over the past two years, those officials say, the cells have coalesced into a well-equipped and well-funded network capable of launching many more attacks in Yemen and the region.
The growing capabilities and aspirations of the network were demonstrated in the Christmas Day bombing attempt. The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had studied in the country and had been in contact with al-Qaida leaders there. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula later claimed responsibility for the attempt.
U.S. officials are also growing concerned about the increasing power of clerics in Yemen to recruit and radicalize Muslims worldwide. That is particularly the case with American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to be a key player in the al-Qaida affiliate.
The FBI is investigating connections between al-Awlaki and both Abdulmutallab and Maj. Nidal N. Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November.
The country is riddled with so much governmental corruption that Washington fears U.S. aid and counterterrorism money would simply disappear, according to U.S. officials and formal findings by government and nonprofit watchdog groups.
Saleh, who has run Yemen since it was declared a republic in 1990, is already fighting a long-running and expensive civil war in the south and a rebellion by Shiite Houthi fighters in the north.
That has made him reluctant to go after al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly because its leaders are protected by powerful tribes that have governed the region for thousands of years, U.S. intelligence officials say.
Any concerted effort to go after them, especially with military force, could provoke the tribes to turn on Saleh’s government, they say.