The intrigue behind the drone strike
Yemeni official says US lacks discretion as antiterror partner.
SANA, YEMEN — In an assassination plot that has the ring of a Graham Greene spy thriller, the US ambassador to Yemen made several arduous journeys into the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Sheba to help gather the goods on what one US official called the "godfather of terror" in Yemen.
Along with a small army of security guards and CIA officials, Ambassador Edmund Hull, a short, stone-faced man, braved desert wastelands to meet with the fierce Arab tribesmen who often harbor Osama bin Laden's terrorist cells.
Senior Yemeni officials and tribal sources say that the ambassador, who is one of Washington's top counterterrorism experts, set up last week's successful Predator Hellfire strike. US officials, they say, paid local tribesmen for information that helped locate Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, whom US officials suspected of plotting the strike on the USS Colein October 2000.
The attack fits Washington's new vision of preemptive strikes on terrorists, but it infuriated Yemeni officials.
They are angry over the way the US ambassador handled both the intelligence-gathering phase of the operation and after the fact, when senior US officials, including Assistant Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, violated a secrecy agreement by taking credit for the Hellfire strike.
"This is why is it so difficult to make deals with the United States," says Brig. Gen. Yahya M. Al Mutawakel, the deputy secretary general for the ruling People's Congress party in Yemen, who broke his country's official silence on the issue in an exclusive interview. "This is why we are reluctant to work closely with them. They don't consider the internal circumstances in Yemen. In security matters, you don't want to alert the enemy."
Ambassador Hull, who has two decades of State Department experience spent commuting between the Middle East and Washington, refused to comment on the Hellfire strike or his own role in an attack that other American officials have characterized as a major ground-breaking success in Washington's global war on terror.
Last week's dead included al-Harethi and, while all of the five other victims have yet to be identified, one is believed to be Kemal Darwish. Mr. Darwish, a US-born Saudi, is suspected of being the recruiter of a terror support cell that's been rounded up in Buffalo, N.Y.
The attack, say Yemeni officials, was not a surprise to the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Ambassador Hull and his fellow operatives had carefully explained to the Yemeni government that the US had the option, itself, of going after the Al Qaeda figures suspected of planning the attack which killed 17 US sailors on the USS Cole. If the Yemeni government chose not to, the US government indicated that it was prepared to take matters into its own hands, say both Western and Yemeni officials.
But Yemeni officials did not like what they call the "freelancing" in the countryside of the Arabic-speaking US ambassador. "We are not happy with the dealings with the tribesmen," says General Mutawakel, who displays little obvious emotion as he vents his views in his own posh sitting room. "There were 'diplomatic journeys' out to the region, there were discussions, and money changed hands. We knew that if we agree or disagreed, they would do it anyway, but we are not happy at all with how it has been dealt with."
But the US military had been passing the Yemenis its own intelligence on Al Qaeda activities for months. In a botched raid on al-Harethi and several other Al Qaeda fighters last December, Yemen's military lost 18 of its own soldiers. Western diplomats had been concerned that Yemen would be reluctant to strike again on its own.
Despite the criticism of the US approach, President Ali Saleh's own internal political critics argued that he was reluctant to strike because he still owes a "blood debt" to Osama bin Laden's own fighters for openly assisting him to put down a separatist movement in the south in 1994.
Other official sources said that Yemeni special forces, led by the president's son, Ahmed Abdullah Saleh, did not attack al-Harethi again due to their ongoing training with US Green Berets, and the time it is taking them to sharpen their skills.
In either case, US officials, increasingly impatient with the Sana's slow moves to reign in terrorists, said they could not accept any more excuses, say Western sources here. Predator drones, based in nearby Djibouti, were transmitting real-time video images from the Yemeni hinterland.
While Yemeni officials knew that the US military had helicopters on ships in the Red Sea and could inject a "snatch and kill" squad of commandos into the country within a matter of hours, they said such an operation could ignite a guerrilla war, the sources added.
Then came Ambassador Hull's intelligence coup. Yemeni tribesmen are notorious for not being able to keep a secret and with their palms crossed with silver, they just could not resist telling the Americans what they knew about al Harethi, say sources. As they chewed on narcotic khat leaves, and filled their silver spittoons, the tribesmen also spit out the details on al-Harethi's new haunts.
Counter-intelligence officials say that global positioning coordinates given by a phone held by al-Harethi may also have helped seal his fate. But even that intelligence could be fleeting, so US officials knew they had to act swiftly. They waited until al-Harethi was in a car and clear of home and any civilian neighbors.
"They [the Americans] didn't hit a wedding party, hit their own people, or kill a large number of civilians," says one Western diplomat based on the Arabian Peninsula. "In that respect the US Hellfire strike was good, clean and clinical."
That precision has not, however, muted the anger of senior Yemeni officials like Mutawakel, who worry about domestic unrest if their government is seen as being too closely allied with the US. "We wanted a great degree of independence for our own armed forces. We tried to make it clear that we did not want the Americans to do it themselves. They are just here to get their enemies and get out."
Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.