Yemen charges US-born radical cleric al-Awlaki
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 2:54 PM
SAN'A, Yemen -- Faced with mounting U.S. pressure to do more in the fight against al-Qaida after the thwarted mail bombs plot, Yemen on Tuesday took the surprise move of putting on trial a fugitive U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric wanted for his part in terror attacks on American soil.
The move is largely symbolic, since Anwar al-Awlaki was being tried in absentia. But it appeared to be an attempt by Yemen's government to show its American allies that it takes the cleric as a serious threat - something it has wavered on in the past.
Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, is one of the most prominent English-language radical clerics, and his sermons advocating jihad, or holy war, against the United States have influenced militants involved in several attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. soil. Yemeni officials say he may have blessed the recent mail bomb plot, though not necessarily took an active part in it.
The Obama administration is considering its own terror charges against the 39-year-old al-Awlaki. But even without charges, it put him on a list of militants the CIA is authorized to capture or kill, after the Christmas attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet by a young Nigerian whom al-Awlaki may have helped recruit for al-Qaida in Yemen.
Al-Awlaki is thought to be hiding in the mountains of Yemen, enjoying the protection of family and his large tribe, while facing what some analysts describe as only a half-hearted effort by the Yemeni authorities to capture or kill him.
Yemeni officials had until now privately insisted that they had no legal justification to detain him and that, if captured, the country's constitution prevents his extradition to the United States because he is a Yemeni citizen.
The trial could signal at least a superficial shift in Yemen's position brought about by U.S. pressure following the interception Friday of two bombs hidden in packages mailed from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in the Chicago area.
The two packages were found on planes transiting through Dubai and Britain. U.S. officials believe the plot is the work of al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, of which al-Awlaki is a top figure.
Washington, which has dispatched a team to help with the investigation into the latest plot, has been frustrated with the limited scope of Yemen's efforts to deal with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group here is called, despite U.S. military aid that has been hiked up to $150 million this year. Yemeni forces have had multiple clashes with al-Qaida fighters this year, but with only ambiguous results, and most senior figures in the group remain at large.
Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, promised President Barack Obama in phone conversation that his government will "continue its efforts in combating terrorism and pursue al-Qaida to crush its terrorist activities," according to Yemen's official news agency, Saba.
Analysts here believe that a combination of regime weakness and Saleh's own political maneuvering have prevented him from launching a full-blown campaign to eliminate al-Qaida, which is believed to have some 300 core members in Yemen. Saleh has to balance among powerful tribes that control most areas outside the capital, as well as among Islamic hard-liners with whom he has allied himself to preserve power.
"The government can, if it wants to, capture al-Awlaki with the cooperation of his tribe, said Yemeni analyst Mansour Hayel. "But it is taking its time, using the al-Qaida threat to milk the United States for more aid."