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.

By , Correspondent

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.

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.

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“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.

“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.

“Yemeni authorities look at him [Al-Awlaki] as having links with Al Qaeda and therefore he is targeted by the Yemeni government for arrest and prosecution,” Mr. Qirbi told the Monitor in a follow-up interview in his office. He maintained responsibility for capturing Awlaki was a domestic prerogative. “Outside interference, of course, will create political problems for the government.”

Saudi success has driven militants to Yemen

One country that has struck a balance between public cooperation with the US and countering Al Qaeda is Saudi Arabia, which launched a successful domestic offensive against the group in 2003. Saudi forces are better funded and have been receiving foreign training since the early 1970s, but experts maintain Saudi Arabia’s ability to dispel Al Qaeda stemmed from launching a variety of initiatives, something Yemen hasn’t done.

“The whole point is they’ve done many things and [it’s] precisely the diversity that partly explains the success. They’ve not relied exclusively on force,” says Thomas Hegghammer, research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo. Saudis used propaganda campaigns, constrained the financial resources of militants, limited their ability to acquire weapons, and offered militants amnesty to encourage desertion from Al Qaeda.

“In Saudi Arabia, the violence subsided to the level of zero, one, or two [operations] per year after 2006 and the organization didn’t produce any more propaganda," adds Mr. Hegghammer.

The irony of the success of the Saudi program is that Saudi militants have moved to Yemen. In January 2009, six years after the Saudis bolstered their counterterrorism offensive, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda joined forces under the new name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and made Yemen their base.

“As the security environment in Saudi Arabia has gotten less permissive, these guys will relocate,” says Christopher Boucek, associate at the Carnegie Middle East program in Washington.

Measuring success in either country comes down to “what the militants say and what the militants do,” says Hegghammer. “In Yemen ... Al Qaeda is still carrying out operations at the rate of tens [of] attacks per year and is very active in producing propaganda, so [Yemen has] a long way to go.”

Related:

Q&A: Is Yemen the next Afghanistan?

Ex-Guantánamo inmates return to militancy in Yemen

All Yemen news coverage

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