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Yemen balks at possible US strike on cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

Yemen said this weekend it is not hunting Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric who has been linked to the Fort Hood shooter and Christmas Day underwear bomber. Awlaki was recently added to the CIA's hit list.

By Sarah A. TopolCorrespondent / April 12, 2010

Sanaa, Yemen

Yemen appeared to balk this weekend at a recent US authorization to capture or assassinate Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric tied to 9/11 attackers, the Fort Hood shooter, and the Christmas Day underwear bomber.

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“Anwar al-Awlaki has always been looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn’t be considered as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism,” Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told reporters on Saturday, adding that the government was not hunting the US-born cleric believed to be living in Yemen. “The detailed information ... and evidence gathered by US agencies has not been given to Yemen.”

The US has sought in recent months to heighten cooperation with Yemen, where it believes a relatively new offshoot of Al Qaeda is gaining strength. It has also pledged to double its modest military aid to Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest state. The state’s ability to govern has been compromised by a secessionist movement in the south and a rebellion in the north that was only recently resolved.

'The tribes will refuse'

Yemen has vowed to crack down on Islamist militants, but its alignment with US counterterrorism goals risks raising the ire of powerful tribes in remote areas where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates.

“Here in Yemen, we have a rule – in the villages, tribes rule,” explains Hossin Mohammed, an attendant at perfume store in Sanaa, the capital. “You can’t kill someone, even if you take permission from the government; the tribes will refuse. You can’t see your brother killed in front of you and just shut up.”

Indeed, Awlaki’s tribe, which is active in two of those strongholds – Abyan and Shabwa – threatened this weekend to retaliate against any strike targeting the preacher, who is believed to be hiding in the area.

Al-Awalik tribal leaders issued a statement saying they would “not remain with arms crossed if a hair of Anwar al-Awlaqi is touched, or if anyone plots or spies against him,” according to Al Jazeera.

“Whoever risks denouncing our son [Awlaki] will be the target of Al-Awalik weapons,” the statement said, according to the Arabic news outlet. The tribal leaders also warned “against cooperating with the Americans” in the capture or killing of al-Awlaki.

'People will make trouble'

A CIA move to capture or kill Awlaki, the legality of which was debated in the US last week, would anger not only tribal chieftains, however. Cooperation on an Awlaki strike could spark a wider backlash, increasing already high anti-American sentiment in a country battling the appeal of Islamist insurgents linked to AQAP.