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; A01

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.

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.

Cole's aftereffects

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.

U.S. officials said their counterterrorism efforts have also been hampered by a Yemeni government that has frequently been unpredictable and fickle in its support. After early successes in arresting and killing al-Qaeda operatives after Sept. 11, 2001, Yemeni officials appeared to pull back out of fear of alienating powerful tribes and religious figures.

More vulnerable

In the past two weeks, the government has intensified its attack on militants, bolstered by increased U.S. assistance and a sense that al-Qaeda is becoming a direct threat.

But the more the government cracks down on suspected militants, the more vulnerable Yemen seems to become. In southern Yemen, opposition politicians and newspapers have accused the government of killing civilians in order to appease the United States. Yemeni officials have acknowledged that women and children were killed, but say they were the relatives of the militants.

The aggressive tactics could backfire. As in Pakistan, al-Qaeda militants thrive on the support and protection of tribes, which are highly sensitive about outside interference, even from the government. The militants live among the population, raising the odds of civilian casualties.

Mukhbil Mohammed Ali, the tribal leader, said his tribesmen are angry. They have even more sympathy for al-Qaeda, he said, as well as a growing animosity toward the Yemeni government and its benefactor, America.

"We all want revenge," he said.

Staff writer Joby Warrick and news assistant Christian Hettinger in Washington contributed to this report.

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