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Al-Qaeda benefits from a decade of missteps to become a threat in Yemen
In November 2002, a U.S. Predator drone fired a missile at a car in eastern Yemen, killing six al-Qaeda suspects. They included the branch's leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, whom the United States had linked to the Cole bombing.
Stunned by the strike, senior Yemeni officials demanded that the Bush administration not reveal its involvement. Yemen is a conservative tribal society with deep sympathies for al-Qaeda's core message of protecting Islam. The government worried about a domestic backlash if it became known that it had allowed the United States to operate on its soil.
But U.S. officials soon announced its success. That decision eroded Yemeni trust in the United States and damaged efforts to combat terrorism, Yemeni officials said.
"I was so angry," Iriyani recalled.
U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that the strike posed a political liability for Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But they also contend that Yemen's government wavered in its commitment to fighting al-Qaeda even before that attack.
By 2003, the United States was focused on the Iraq war and appeared more intent on fighting corruption and promoting democracy in Yemen than on tackling al-Qaeda, experts said.
U.S. development aid to combat Yemen's soaring poverty rates and high unemployment -- key factors in enticing new recruits to militancy -- was minuscule. It declined from $56.5 million in 2000 to $25.5 million in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. officials say the aid was cut largely because of corruption concerns.
"When you look back and see how little attention Yemen was getting several years ago, it's shocking," said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "None of these problems with Yemen's stability are new, and we've known what was coming down the road."
In 2006, 23 al-Qaeda militants broke out of a maximum security jail in Sanaa, the capital. They included several operatives involved in the Cole attack, as well as Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who became the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemeni and U.S. officials say the militants were helped by Yemeni security officials sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
U.S. counterterrorism aid to Yemen was $4.6 million that year.
Today, the jailbreak is viewed as the genesis of the current generation of al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. But it was two more years before the United States substantially increased counterterrorism aid -- after al-Qaeda militants, including some who broke out of the jail, attacked the U.S. Embassy in September 2008, killing 16 people, including one American.
The ghosts of the USS Cole have haunted the U.S.-Yemen relationship throughout the past decade. All of the suspected attackers have been freed or escaped from prison, deepening tensions. Yemen's government has also refused to extradite to the United States two al-Qaeda militants, including one convicted of masterminding the Cole attack. Yemeni officials say their constitution bars the extradition of Yemeni nationals.