Cables show obstacles with Yemeni leader

Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh at a May ceremony in the southern city of Taiz that marked the 20th anniversary of Yemen's reunification.
Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh at a May ceremony in the southern city of Taiz that marked the 20th anniversary of Yemen's reunification. (Khaled Abdullah)

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010

The portrait of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh that emerges from a series of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables is that of a skillful operator - sometimes erratic, often exasperating and always looking for a handout - who knows that he has considerable leverage over his American interlocutors.

The cables, released to news organizations by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, show the Obama administration's rising alarm about the growth of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP. Spanning from early 2009 to February this year, the classified documents recount the efforts of a series of high-level administration visitors to flatter Saleh while trying to enlist greater cooperation in antiterrorist efforts and pin him down on specific initiatives.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of the U.S. Central Command, congratulated Saleh in January "on successful operations against AQAP," the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa reported. Petraeus told Saleh that he had requested a doubling of U.S. security assistance for Yemen and that President Obama had approved increased U.S. intelligence support.

Saleh congratulated Petraeus for U.S. cruise missile attacks on two AQAP targets in December 2009 - U.S. operations that both governments had publicly denied - and agreed with the general's proposal to use fixed-wing aircraft in the future.

But he turned down Petraeus's request to station U.S. intelligence personnel and equipment in combat areas, saying that the fallout from possible U.S. casualties on the ground would be too great.

Saleh then raised "a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting," the cable said, asking for 12 armed helicopters. He helpfully suggested that cumbersome U.S. bureaucracy could be circumvented if "the U.S. could convince Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab Emirates] to supply" six of them.

His country also needed more maritime support against smuggling of drugs and arms, Saleh said. "Why not have Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Saudi, and the UAE each provide two patrol boats?" he proposed.

Three weeks later, Saleh told Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, that he was satisfied with U.S. assistance to date. But, he said, he "would like to be more satisfied in the future," a Feb. 3 cable reported.

The Americans, Saleh said in a description of U.S. policy through many administrations, were "hot-blooded and hasty when you need us," but "cold-blooded and British when we need you." He asked for a "moderate blood temperature," and a more measured approach.

Benjamin was particularly interested in improving security screening and procedures at Yemeni airports after the unsuccessful attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. The plot was allegedly launched by a Nigerian student trained in Yemen.

The published cables end before the most recent plot emanating from Yemen - the failed attempt to ship bombs aboard cargo planes in October. But problems in Yemeni airport security had been detected long before that episode or the Christmas attempt.

An August 2009 cable described a visit to Yemen by a U.S. security delegation that revealed "several lapses in airport security practices . . . regarding passenger screening, cargo security, and secure identification display area badge and access procedures."


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