US covert attacks in Yemen: A better template for the war on terror?

The new campaign follows US concerns about a fortified Al Qaeda in conflict-torn Yemen. It’s very likely a harbinger of things to come, some national security experts say.

By , Staff writer

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    A still image of a video taken Nov. 8, 2010, from the website muslm.net shows Anwar al- Awlaki, a US-born cleric linked to al-Qaeda in Yemen speaking from an undisclosed location.
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Yemen’s political turmoil is stoking US concerns about a fortified Al Qaeda and prompting the Central Intelligence Agency to jump in with unmanned drones to target Islamist extremists.

The new campaign relies on special operations and unmanned surveillance and attack – but no boots on the ground. It’s very likely a harbinger of things to come, some national security experts say.

“What this basically says is, we’re not going to do counterinsurgency anymore; from now on it’s counterterrorism,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The focus is back on Al Qaeda.”

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Consensus in Washington on Al Qaeda remaining a threat may explain why President Obama faces virtually no opposition to what amounts to a covert war in Yemen – even as he battles Congress over the US military engagement in Libya.

The focus by US intelligence, which CIA Director Leon Panetta announced in broad-brush fashion at a Senate hearing earlier this month, resembles a CIA campaign in Pakistan’s tribal regions, particularly in the use of drones. As in Pakistan, where the objective is to thwart extremists who cross over to attack in neighboring Afghanistan, the Yemen campaign also has a regional aspect.

With Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), particularly active in the country’s south, the United States wants to head off any alliance between Yemen’s extremists and those operating in Somalia across the Gulf of Aden – a crucial global energy transport route.

“Our approach has been to develop operations in each of these areas [Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa] that will contain Al Qaeda and go after them so they have no place to escape,” Mr. Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 9.

US counterterrorism officials acknowledge that links already exist between AQAP and Al Shabab, the Somali Islamist organization with ties to Al Qaeda. One US goal, according to the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, is to stop Yemen’s instability and deteriorated governmental authority from allowing AQAP and Al Shabab to strengthen their ties.

Still, Yemen remains America’s No. 1 terrorism concern – something US officials have said for months. In recent comments to Washington journalists, Benjamin said it is a “safe assumption” that AQAP still holds the top-threat slot, based on what the US knows to be the organization’s “relentless desire to carry out a terrorist attack.”

AQAP has a few unsuccessful terrorist attacks under its belt – notably the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009, as well as the foiled operation last year to strike US destinations with package bombs. One of the organization’s lead figures, the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, calls for attacks on US interests in his public pronouncements. (The US has him in its sights: A drone attack in Yemen, carried out last month before the CIA campaign, was aimed at Mr. Awlaki but missed.)

Some US officials are trying to play down the prospects for a total breakdown in Yemen that could leave it a failed state ripe for AQAP’s picking. In a June 13 interview with the Associated Press, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he saw glimmers of hope that Yemenis can avoid a total collapse and overcome their political divisions – in particular if beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains out of the country in Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t think you’ll see a full-blown war there,” Secretary Gates said. “With Saleh being in Saudi Arabia, maybe something can be worked out to bring this to a close.”

The alternative is an open door to AQAP. “If Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were to take control in Yemen, that would give them a base for causing a lot of problems in the region and for targeting us,” says Mr. Korb of the Center for American Progress.

It’s very likely the prospects of an emboldened AQAP that explain why the plans for a stepped-up covert operation in Yemen raised nary a protest from an increasingly war-weary Congress. If anything, the same president being pilloried by both the right and left in Congress for sending the US military into Libya is receiving kudos for sharpening the US fight in Yemen.

“Yemen is beginning to be a safe haven for Al Qaeda, and the president is having drone attacks,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina in remarks Wednesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Announcing he plans to offer a Senate resolution authorizing Mr. Obama to use military force in Yemen, Senator Graham added, “I don’t think we [in Congress] should be on the sidelines. I think we should support the president.”

What further explains the different responses on Libya and Yemen?

“Vital interests, or perhaps better said, direct threat,” says James Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“What you’re seeing on Libya is the conviction on the part of critics that Libya wasn’t attacking us – that there are no terrorists there targeting us,” he says. “But in Yemen, you have Al Qaeda operatives engaged in planning attacks on the US, so the argument is, better to take the fight to them rather than wait for them to attack us or our overseas interests.”

Some in Congress may feel they have already authorized the president to undertake the kind of operations that Obama is expanding in Yemen.

“If you go back to the first congressional resolution after the 9/11 attacks, it authorizes whatever actions necessary to defeat the terrorists who would attack us,” says Korb. “Those terrorists are exactly who we are going after in Yemen,” he adds, “while people are saying Libya has nothing to do with Al Qaeda.”

At least not right now. But if anything might reverse the mounting opposition in Congress (and among the public) to the military intervention in Libya, it would be evidence of Al Qaeda gaining a foothold in the North African country in a post-Muammar Qaddafi era, some experts say.

“If Qaddafi’s fall were to lead to a destabilized Libya that ended up fertile ground for Al Qaeda operatives,” says Lindsay, “then I think the concerns about Libya would suddenly be quite different.”

David Grant contributed to this story from Washington.

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