Why Yemen's US-aided fight against Al Qaeda could backfire
Experts caution that unless Yemen diversifies its approach – which led to success in neighboring Saudi Arabia – increased military action and overt cooperation with the US, which has dramatically increased funding, may ultimately backfire.
The attempted assassination of the British ambassador to Yemen this week, together with a purported video of the Christmas Day bomber training with Al Qaeda’s branch here, has drawn fresh attention to the need for a strong counterterrorism strategy in Yemen.Skip to next paragraph
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The United States sharply increased military assistance to Yemen after AQAP claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound flight. In recent months, the Yemeni government has targeted dozens of suspected AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula] operatives – often quietly working in tandem with the US.
But experts caution that unless Yemen diversifies its approach – which led to success in neighboring Saudi Arabia – increased military action as well as overt cooperation with America may ultimately backfire.
“Up until Christmas Day 2009, AQAP ... was stronger in Yemen than it had ever been before. Over the last few months, they’ve taken a series of hits … but none of these have been sort of the debilitating blow that’s going to knock the organization off its tracks for any sustained period of time,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University in New Jersey.
A day in the life of Yemen's counterterrorism unit
The main crux of Yemen’s counterterrorism offensive is targeted military action by the Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), with the aid of American and British funding, trainers, and intelligence. In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorized $150 million in security assistance for Yemen for fiscal year 2010, up from $67 million last year. According to officials interviewed by Reuters, $38 million of the funding is earmarked for a military transport aircraft, while $34 million will go to "tactical assistance" of Yemen's special operations forces.
The CTU was established in 2003 and consists of 200 fighters who live in barracks at the headquarters of Central Command in Sanaa. They attend training sessions five days a week at a small, primitive obstacle course about eight miles outside the capital.
On a recent day, a small team of soldiers in green camouflage ran drills. The soldiers ran to a fixed point before lying down and firing at an upper body target. Darting up in unison, they ran to another target point and fired at green glass bottles balanced on a wall, until moving on to firing pistols at a closer range on more targets that appeared to be cut from wood and cardboard. An empty concrete structure approximating a house stands amid the course, where the CTU practices approaching homes.
The CTU also has an all-woman unit consisting of 42 women, who work with female American instructors, who also practice shooting on the course. Overhead, the sound of Air Force practice could be heard.
Maj. Abu Luhom, who has been with the CTU since it was founded, says they have been running more, increasingly successful, missions in recent months: “We owe the credit to American and British training.”
Amar, a young warrant officer, gleamed with sweat under his black helmet and flak jacket after finishing the obstacle course. “Every day we sit with the Americans,” he said, adding that they coach him in house searching, shooting, and medical training. He explained that he trains five days a week and sometimes has night drills – before the interview was abruptly ended by Luhom's directive that soldiers were not authorized to speak to the press.
US-Yemen cooperation could boost AQAP recruitment
But working closely with the US is a difficult balancing act for the Yemeni government, and risks strengthening AQAP’s hand.