Yemen's air strike on Al Qaeda may signal new US focus

Yemen's air strike Thursday targeting Al Qaeda hideouts and perhaps Anwar al-Awlaki, the cleric linked to the Fort Hood shooter, was the second conducted with US assistance in a week.

By , Staff writer

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    Yemeni protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in southern Yemen Friday against a government's raid that targeted suspected al-Qaeda members. As many as 30 suspected militants were killed Thursday in air strikes carried out by the Yemeni military with US assistance.
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A series of air strikes in Yemen Thursday may have targeted the radical cleric who associated with alleged Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

The air strikes on Al Qaeda hideouts, the second in a week conducted by the Yemeni government with US assistance, may have also targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric living in Yemen. The Washington Post, which has reporters on the ground in Yemen, said that as many as 30 suspected militants were killed. It was not clear if Mr. al-Awlaki, who had extensive contact with Hasan over the last year, was killed in the attack.

The Post cited a local news source with ties to the government as saying that the Awlaki property in Shabwa province was “raided and demolished”; but it also quoted family members of al-Awlaki saying they did not believe the cleric was at the location targeted.

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It was the second such strike in a week, and though US officials won't confirm their involvement, increased military aid for Yemen this year suggests a new US focus in the war on terrorism.

Last week, an air strike appeared to have taken out more than a couple dozen militants based on operations using American firepower and intelligence sought by the Yemeni government.

On Thursday, US government officials issued statements in support of Yemen. “We strongly support Yemeni actions against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which poses a serious threat to Yemeni, US and regional interests,” said one official in Washington.

Links to Fort Hood

Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is the alleged shooter in the Fort Hood rampage Nov. 5 that took the lives of 13 soldiers and injured 30 more. Hasan was in contact via e-mail to al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American whose preachings are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. The e-mails were intercepted by Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) officials in December last year but held to be harmless.

However, ABC reported Thursday that in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this week, the preacher claimed Hasan had asked in an e-mail whether it was OK to kill fellow US soldiers, among other things.

A haven for Al Qaeda

With an estimated presence of more than 1,000 Al Qaeda operatives, Yemen is steadily becoming more important in the war against terrorism. It is a large country on the Arabian Peninsula with some 22 million people with an unemployment rate of about 40 percent that is expected to double in the next few decades. The availability of water is dwindling, and the oil revenues upon which the country depends are quickly evaporating. By 2017, those revenues are expected to bottom out, according to a report published by BP and cited in a report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank in Washington.

All these factors make the country susceptible to militants who seek a haven to train and plan operations not only against western interests but to destabilize the region. Yet as in Pakistan, the US confronts a complex political challenge in Yemen. It must support the fragile government to take action against extremism, while avoiding being seen as having undue influence on Sana’a, the capital.

New US aid for Yemen

The US has spent about $70 million this year to support training and buy equipment for Yemen, compared with no funding last year, according to the Associated Press. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on his military jet as he returned from Iraq and Afghanistan Sunday said he is comfortable with the level of support the US is currently providing.

“We’ve actually done quite a bit there, I think we’re on a pretty good track,” he said. He added, referring to Yemen government's first set of raids,“I really do applaud what they did, who they went after and specifically going after the Al Qaeda cell which has grown significantly over the last couple of years there.”

The CNAS report argues that the US must make a deep, long-term commitment to Yemen. That does not necessarily mean just deploying large military forces or sending millions more in aid, the report says, but marshaling “an array of instruments, including diplomacy, development assistance, and the effective use of political and economic leverage.”

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