CAIRO, Egypt – U.S. efforts to weaken the al-Qaida branch in Yemen have collided with that nation’s political reality as President Ali Abdullah Saleh needs foreign support to defeat militants but cannot appear to appease Western interests in a country where distrust of America runs deep.
Yemen is a freewheeling mix of clan loyalties, rebellions in the north and south, and suspicion of the government that in recent years has made it an ideal gathering ground for al-Qaida. Echoing the quandary Washington faces battling militants in Pakistan, Yemen is marked by corruption and, at times, what seems to be a calculated inability to crush militant elements.
This scenario grew more troubling Friday when two packages containing explosives that had been shipped from Yemen and addressed to Jewish centers in Chicago were intercepted before reaching the U.S. The plot followed the botched Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian student, allegedly trained by Yemen’s al-Qaida network and carrying explosives in his underwear, to blow up a U.S. passenger jet.
For years, Yemen was a blip on America’s consciousness, an impoverished and troubled country tucked between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden. But al-Qaida’s ability to launch global operations from the nation increasingly worries U.S. and Western intelligence agencies.
Washington has sent military advisers and $150 million this year to train and assist Yemen’s special forces. Despite recent military successes and growing counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Yemen, however, the militants remain potent. They have ambushed and killed scores of police officers and security troops across the country, launched a recent attack in the capital, San’a, and disappeared last week into the southern mountains to escape a military offensive.
The Obama administration has intensified pressure on Saleh, and Friday’s foiled terrorist plot may lead to increased U.S. military involvement in Yemen. The U.S. has not commented on reports in December that it carried out airstrikes in Yemen that killed as many as 10 militants and at least 40 civilians.
Washington is also seeking to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who has emerged as a leader in the militant group, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. investigators believe the preacher inspired Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to go on a shooting rampage last year at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 32.
Islamic militants, many of whom could seek refuge in their tribes, were tolerated inside Yemen for years as long as they aimed their attacks on other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Western intelligence officials have gradually convinced Saleh that al-Qaida’s intentions also include targeting him and his family.
The Yemeni government has stepped up military actions against al-Qaida, which is believed to have several hundred fighters, mostly Yemeni and Saudi nationals. How effective those operations have been remains an open question. The Yemeni news agency reported over the weekend that a raid involving 1,000 troops and 500 tribesmen loyal to the government ended when no militants were found in Shabwa province, a haven for jihadists in the southern part of the country.
Saleh, who once likened ruling Yemen to dancing on the heads of snakes, has other pressing concerns: A rebellion by Houthi tribesmen in the north, which sparked widespread destruction and tens of thousands of refugees, sporadically flares. And in the south, the government is trying to contain a secessionist movement that many analysts say is more dangerous to Saleh than al-Qaida.
The key to Saleh’s success over nearly three decades in power has been his manipulating of tribes with promises, money and infrastructure projects. But largess is getting tight and there is disenchantment in the outlands, most notably after strikes against al-Qaida also have mistakenly killed tribesmen and their families.
Saleh’s critics claim the president benefits from al-Qaida and other threats. The air of instability, especially at a time of concern over international terrorism, has brought outside support for the government and brought foreign dollars into the country to pay for humanitarian and military operations.
Yemen’s biggest donor is Saudi Arabia, which has tightened its border to prevent militants from sneaking in and launching attacks, such as a 2009 suicide bombing that nearly killed a prince.
The U.S. is expected to significantly increase aid in coming years as attention to Yemen grows similar to what it was immediately after the attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole that killed 17 sailors in 2000.