Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is becoming a powerful domestic insurgency, as political turmoil in that country has allowed the group to take and hold territory there, according to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan.
U.S. intelligence officials have described al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the world’s “most operationally active” global terrorist organization, traditionally focused on regional and international targets in coordination with al-Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan’s tribal regions.
But since widespread opposition to the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh broke out in March, AQAP has extended its focus in Yemen itself, taking over the port city of Zinjibar and other areas in the south. The government’s “ability to confront” AQAP has become limited, Brennan said Thursday. With government and political opposition “guns pointed at each other…it undercuts their ability to confront their common enemy.”
Brennan insisted that joint U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism efforts are “not losing ground,” and that the United States would not “get involved in a domestic conflict” between Yemen and AQAP.
The Obama administration, he said, continues to encourage President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resolve Yemen’s political strife by turning over power to a transitional government that would hold elections early next year under a proposal made by the Gulf Cooperation Council of governments on the Arabian peninsula.
Saleh, who has been in Saudi Arabia since he was severely wounded in an attack on the presidential palace in June, has refused. In a two-day meeting this week, his ruling General People’s Congress agreed to send a delegation to Riyadh to ask Saleh to delegate the “necessary constitutional authority” to initiate a dialogue with the opposition about some version of the GCC proposal.
“It’s time to move forward to the transfer of power,” Brennan said. “The Yemenis know our position.”
Even if the government manages to coalesce around a common position, however, the opposition remains divided among youth groups who initially took to the streets as part of the Arab Spring, powerful tribal and political leaders, and dissident military forces.
Brennan spoke to reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, one of several public appearances he has made this week as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches.
In other comments, he said that an ongoing examination of intelligence gleaned from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout in May has not revealed any official involvement in supporting the al-Qaeda leader.
“We all assumed when we found out” where bin Laden was that “there may have been some kind of Pakistani complicity,” Brennan said. “We haven’t seen it. The Pakistanis were as surprised as we were” that bin Laden had been living for years, more or less in plain sight, in the north-central city of Abbottabad.
Asked about detention policy, Brennan said that the United States has legal authority to hold captured terrorism suspects aboard ships at sea, as it did for more than two months last spring with Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, an alleged member of the Somali organization al-Shabab with ties to AQAP. Warsame was captured in April aboard a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Aden. In June he was secretly flown to New York, where he was indicted on federal charges.
The case of Warsame, the first terrorism suspect detained abroad who was transferred to this country for civilian trial, is unlikely to be easily repeated, however. Many lawmakers have strenuously objected to holding such trials here, and Congress has specifically prohibited transferring detainees being held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo.
The administration has said it plans to try some of those detainees before military commissions in Guantanamo. But Brennan said that there was no legal impediment to bringing newly captured prisoners here for military trial.
“I’ve not heard anybody exclude inside the United States for such a procedure,” he said.
Brennan, who served for 25 years in the CIA, said he believed that the United States was far safer now then it was at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, and dismissed those who have said that another terrorist strike was inevitable no matter what counter measures were taken.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea of inevitability at all,” he said.
Asked whether current U.S. political polarization impeded the counterterrorism effort, he criticized “finger-pointing” on “both sides of the aisle” as “one of the things that dismay counterterrorism professionals.”
“If people haven’t ridden in the saddles of the counterterrorism cavalry,” he said, they don’t understand “how difficult it is.”