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How to fight al-Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen

Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A12

AS THE EVIDENCE mounts that alleged airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was equipped and dispatched to attack the United States by a branch of al-Qaeda based in Yemen, some are asking whether the United States should launch a military offensive in that impoverished Arabian nation.

The answer, of course, is that it already has. In the past two weeks, Yemeni forces equipped with U.S. weapons and intelligence have carried out two major raids against the self-styled al-Qaeda in the Arabian Pensinsula (AQAP). It's even possible that the group was decapitated a day before the attack on Northwest Flight 253, with an airstrike on a meeting that was believed to include AQAP's two top leaders as well as a radical sheik linked to the Fort Hood gunman.

If that's the case -- and there has been no confirmation that the senior leaders were killed -- the bungled airline attack allegedly carried out by a confused 23-year-old Nigerian could represent the highwater mark of an organization believed to have 100 to 300 members. Yet the group managed to issue a statement Monday claiming responsibility for the attempt to blow up Flight 253 and promising more operations -- a threat reportedly echoed by Mr. Abdulmutallab during his questioning by the FBI.

To its credit, the Obama administration has already significantly stepped up U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen, which has been a trouble spot since the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. CIA and Special Forces personnel have been dispatched to the country to assist in operations and train Yemeni forces, and the administration is planning to spend $65 million on security assistance this year.

Still, Yemen's steady slide toward failed-state status in recent years means that it, like nearby Somalia, will probably demand concerted and multifaceted U.S. engagement for years to come. More than Special Forces and missile strikes are needed: The relatively friendly central government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh should be bolstered with education and economic development programs like those the United States has deployed for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even more urgent is a workable strategy for the 90 Yemeni detainees still held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Six were recently returned to Yemeni custody in large part because the Justice Department believed their release would be ordered by federal judges considering habeas corpus petititions. Another two dozen might have to be returned for the same reason. Considering that a number of al-Qaeda operatives previously escaped from a Yemeni prison, and two leaders of AQAP are former Guantanamo detainees, this is an alarming prospect. A lapsed effort to help the Yemeni government create a rehabilitation program for returning detainees should be revived -- and the administration should seek new authorities from Congress that would allow it to hold those detainees it deems too dangerous to return.

Does the trouble in Yemen mean that the United States is wasting its resources on Afghanistan? Of course not: Al-Qaeda's central base remains the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands. The hard truth is that the fight against Islamic extremism will have to be waged on multiple fronts. U.S. ground troops are not needed, for now, in Yemen or Somalia; but in those countries, as in Afghanistan, a strategy limited to counterterrorism will not eliminate the threat.

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