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Yemen's delicate dance between US pressure, Al Qaeda threat

Amid intense US pressure in the wake of the Yemen bomb plot, President Saleh's government has launched a manhunt and put Anwar al-Awlaki on trial in absentia.

By Laura KasinofCorrespondent / November 2, 2010

A Yemeni policeman takes position outside the state security court in San'a, Yemen, on Nov. 2. Yemen put a US-born radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, on trial in absentia Tuesday, accusing him and two other men with plotting to kill foreigners and of being members of al-Qaida.



Sanaa, Yemen

Four days after a Yemeni bomb plot targeting the United States was foiled by international intelligence agencies, Yemen has ramped up its fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in what some see as an attempt to preclude more direct US involvement.

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The boom of military jets sounded over Yemen's capital, Sanaa, throughout Tuesday as Yemeni forces reportedly went after Saudi national Ibrahim al-Asiri – the suspected bombmaker in the operation.

And in a major gesture to the US, President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government announced today that it has started court proceedings against Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in absentia for plotting to murder foreigners.

“The Yemeni government has realized that Anwar al-Awlaki has become a pet project for the Pentagon,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The fact that they have gone ahead and opened up the proceedings now is a step they are taking in the hope that it will preempt any US action.”

“Anytime something happens like this – whether it’s the parcel bomb plot or the bomb attempt on Christmas Day – Yemen gets really nervous, especially with the recent track record America has going into Iraq and Afghanistan,” adds Mr. Johnsen.

Yemen caught between US, domestic interests

The moves, which come amid intensified pressure from Washington, reflect the delicate balance both countries must strike between fighting an effective counterterrorism operation and satisfying the very different demands of their populaces.

After the US led two recent invasions – in Iraq and Afghanistan – in the name of routing terrorism, Yemen is anxious to avoid US intervention.

Americans, however, are increasingly concerned about curbing militant activity in Yemen, with former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff suggesting yesterday that Yemen "may not be up to the job.”

“For the Americans, it's difficult not to overreact," says Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think the knee-jerk reaction would be a military response, which will not improve security and instability in Yemen.”

The US is reportedly mulling heightened actions, including a CIA-run hit squad. But cracking down on AQAP requires a sensitive approach in Yemen, where the public doesn't see AQAP as a primary concern and strong tribal networks are known to shelter militants who share clan ties.