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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.

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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.”

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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.

“Al Qaeda wants to present Yemen on par with Iraq and Afghanistan ... to present Yemen as being occupied by outside forces, because once they do that, then it throws open the gates of recruitment,” says Mr. Johnsen of Princeton. He describes statements by Yemeni officials that there are no US soldiers in Yemen as “a very sort of calculated quote to indicate to the Yemenis that these aren’t soldiers, they are just advisers – and that the US isn’t occupying Yemen.”

Yemen’s predicament was highlighted when the CIA added to its hit list American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric tied to the Fort Hood shooter and Christmas Day bomber who is now believed to be hiding in Yemen. Initially, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said Yemen was waiting for US evidence of Mr. Awlaki’s terrorism ties before hunting him, but later amended his statement.