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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“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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.