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.
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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.”
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.)