But the most dire assessments came from Saudi Arabia, where officials said Yemen would be a more hospitable environment for terrorists than even Afghanistan and was already so infested that it should be considered al-Qaeda’s “main home.”
In cold and unflinching language, dozens of previously secret U.S. diplomatic cables betray a level of international concern about the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen that is deeper and broader than has been publicly revealed.
The cables, from 2009 and 2010, depict a country on the verge of becoming a failed state even before the recent uprisings; a leader who exploited the threat of al-Qaeda to extract foreign counterterrorism help that he sometimes diverted for use against internal foes; and an al-Qaeda franchise remarkably suited to thriving in Yemen’s tribal culture and rugged terrain.
Mounting demonstrations against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have heightened U.S. concerns about his country, disrupting counterterrorism operations involving U.S. Special Operations forces, aerial surveillance from armed Predator aircraft and clandestine CIA operations.
The cables, provided by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, predate the Middle East uprisings by 10 or more months. Even so, they illuminate the stakes for the United States and its allies in a nation that, even when seemingly stable, served as a launchpad for attacks, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009.
The documents reveal a level of disagreement and dysfunction in U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism efforts that helps explain why the campaign against al-Qaeda appears to have stalled after a series of early, high-profile strikes.
Finally, the cables raise new questions about the United States’ reliance on Saleh, an autocrat who is depicted as an often-uncommitted and unfocused partner in counterterrorism efforts long before protests threatened to end his 32-year-old reign.
The State Department declined to address the authenticity of the cables or their contents.
“The United States strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of classified information,” said Mike Hammer, the department’s acting chief spokesman. “In addition to damaging our diplomatic efforts, it puts individuals’ security at risk, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with countries to solve shared problems.”
Diversion of resources
A cable issued by the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, last year noted that elite Yemeni counterterrorism units built with extensive American help to target al-Qaeda were instead being used by Saleh to subdue Houthi rebels in the country’s north.
The diversions included elements of Yemen’s special operations forces and one of its counterterrorism platoons. Both were sent “after Yemen’s regular forces struggled against the Houthis’ unconventional tactics,” said the cable, sent Jan. 13, 2010, by then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen A. Seche.