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Yemen diverted US counterrorism aid meant to tackle Al Qaeda, WikiLeaks reveals

A December 2009 cable, published by WikiLeaks, shows that Yemen deployed a US-funded counterterrorism unit to fight domestic rebels instead of Al Qaeda.

By Laura KasinofCorrespondent / December 6, 2010

In this Aug. 31 file photo, Yemeni tanks are seen in Saada province, Yemen. According to a December 2009 cable from the US embassy in Sanaa, shows that Yemen deployed a US-funded counterterrorism unit to fight against militant Houthi rebels in the northern governorate of Saada during a surge in fighting last year.

Yemeni Army/AP/File

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Sanaa, Yemen

As the US weighs another possible increase in Yemen aid early next year, WikiLeaks has revealed that Yemen is diverting at least some US counterterrorism resources to tackle other domestic priorities – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh's enemies.

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According to a December 2009 cable from the US embassy in Sanaa, a counterterrorism unit (CTU) trained and funded by the Americans to hunt down Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives was deployed instead against militant Houthi rebels in the northern governorate of Saada during a surge in fighting last year.

“Increasingly desperate to defeat the Houthis, the [Yemeni government] continues to insist that fighting the Houthis is a legitimate component of CT [counterterrorism] operations, thus justifying the use of CTU forces in Saada," reads the State Department cable. "Untrained to fight this type of conflict, the overstretched CTU has reportedly sustained significant casualties, missed training opportunities and been derailed from its principal mission: to combat AQAP.”

The cable underscores – and appears to at least partially validate – concerns that millions of dollars in US counterterrorism aid may be used not only to fight Al Qaeda, but to address other Yemeni priorities not shared by Washington.

AQAP only one of Yemen's many concerns

Yemen's weak government, an increasingly important partner in America's effort to protect itself against terrorist attacks, is not only concerned about the reemergence of Al Qaeda activity in recent years. President Saleh, who governs the Arab world's poorest country, also faces a southern secessionist movement, tribal tensions, and a resource crunch.

Some reports have warned that Yemen could become a failed state, leaving AQAP even freer to operate and launch attacks – including on Western targets. Perhaps sensing that the US has developed a stronger interest in preventing such an outcome, Yemen's government has sought to leverage its unglamorous image in exchange for US aid.

“If you don't help, this country will become worse than Somalia,” Mr. Saleh said to US Chief Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan, according to a cable from September 2009.

With two high-profile AQAP terrorism attempts against America in the past year – the 2009 Christmas Day bomber and the October cargo plane bomb plot – Washington has only become more anxious to shut down the Al Qaeda franchise, and thus potentially more open to Yemen's overtures.

US doubled aid, despite questions

Critics of the Saleh government have long claimed that the fight against Al Qaeda has been beneficial to Yemen’s government so it can garner financial and military aid for its own domestic agenda.

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