Al-Qaeda benefits from a decade of missteps to become a threat in Yemen

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 3, 2010

SANAA, YEMEN -- Nearly a decade after the bombing of the USS Cole, a combination of U.S. and Yemeni missteps, deep mistrust and a lack of political will have allowed al-Qaeda militants here to regroup and pose a major threat to the United States, according to Yemeni and U.S. officials, diplomats and analysts.

The U.S. failures have included a lack of focus on al-Qaeda's growing stature, insufficient funding to and cooperation with Yemen, and a misunderstanding of the Middle Eastern country's complex political terrain, Yemeni officials and analysts said. U.S. policies in the region, they said, often alienated top Yemeni officials and did little to address the root causes of militancy.

Frustrated American officials say Yemen never made fighting al-Qaeda a top priority, which has stalled large-scale U.S. support.

These problems, which ultimately helped enable al-Qaeda militants here to plot an attack on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, have forced the United States to open a new front in its anti-terrorism efforts. It is part of a largely invisible war, stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa, waged from the skies and from high-tech intelligence centers, with unmanned aircraft, CIA operatives and vivid satellite images serving as the weapons of choice.

It is a war that challenges the Obama administration in ways that echo the conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These issues were on display in a U.S.-backed airstrike in southern Yemen on Dec. 17. The government said it struck an al-Qaeda training camp, killing at least 23 militants. But tribal leaders and residents say mostly civilians were killed. The strike has generated an outpouring of anger and anti-American sentiment across the south and in parliament.

"I saw parts of bodies, mostly women and children," said Mukhbil Mohammed Ali, a tribal leader. "America says it supports Yemen to eradicate terrorists. But America is only supporting Yemen to kill the innocent."

After years of paltry assistance, the United States last year provided $67 million in counterterrorism aid for training, intelligence and equipment. Assistance will more than double this year, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said Friday in Baghdad before visiting Yemen the next day.

U.S. commandos are training Yemen's security forces and coast guard in counterterrorism tactics. American drones and satellites are guiding airstrikes.

But many say the war could arrive too late to change the trajectory in Yemen. Since the Cole attack, the nation has been on a path toward dissolution. The government is weak, unable to control large swaths of the country and the porous borders. It is stretched thin fighting a civil conflict in the north and a separatist movement in the south. It is burdened with crushing poverty and high unemployment; oil revenues and water supplies are shrinking.

In this atmosphere, al-Qaeda has flourished. It is seeking to create an operational and training base to use Yemen, strategically tucked between oil-rich regions, key shipping routes and vast lawless areas, as a launching pad for global jihad. Increasingly, though, al-Qaeda is also targeting the government and its security apparatus.

"The attack on the USS Cole should have been the loudest wake-up call against al-Qaeda," said Abdul Karim al-Iriyani, a former prime minister of Yemen. "But I don't think, even when I was in government, every attention was given to fighting al-Qaeda. Now, it is much more difficult than 2000."

An erosion of trust

On Oct. 12 of that year, al-Qaeda militants rammed an explosives-packed speedboat into the USS Cole, docked in the southern city of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. In the aftermath, Yemeni and U.S. investigators worked together to tackle al-Qaeda, and their cooperation increased after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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