This week’s US attempt to kill a radical Islamic cleric in Yemen, via a drone attack, indicates that the Obama administration is capitalizing on political unrest there to extract intelligence about the terrorist group Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.
The drone strikes on Thursday, aimed at American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, missed their intended target but killed two brothers affiliated with the Islamist terrorist group, after Mr. Awlaki and a traveling companion switched vehicles with them. The US has been targeting Awlaki since the 2009 “Christmas Day underwear bomber” plot, one of the attempted attacks on the US in which officials say he had a role.
Unlike the attack in Pakistan earlier in the week that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the US strikes in Yemen were conducted with the full knowledge and cooperation of the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Indeed, the Yemeni government is asserting that it provided the US with key intelligence about Awlaki.
“The Yemeni government gave the US authorities vital details of Awlaki’s whereabouts … days ago,” a senior Yemeni security official told The Wall Street Journal.
The burst of cooperation appears to be a bid from the Saleh government for greater US support as it struggles to hold onto power. Yemen is among the Arab states that have seen mass protests this year from citizens demanding greater freedom – and an end to decades of rule by autocratic leaders. Mr. Saleh, who has led Yemen since a military coup in 1978, now finds himself clinging to office.
A US official told the Journal that information about Awlaki has indeed been more forthcoming since the domestic uprising began – and that Saleh has sought to win greater US political support in return. The US has backed a proposal by Gulf Arab mediators to ease Saleh out of power within a month – a deal that Saleh himself now appears to be resisting.
If Awlaki has become a pawn in Saleh’s bid to stay in power, it’s not clear what the US would do for Yemen's president in return. The US has expressed concern that Yemen, already overseen by a weak government, could become even more of a haven for Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the Obama administration now considers to be the most active terrorist organization.
The Saleh government is emphasizing that risk. A local Yemeni security official told AFP that Al Qaeda fighters in south Yemen on Saturday raided a farm owned by the president. One jihadist was killed and two wounded in the ensuing firefight, the official said. He said armed men had also launched a mortar attack on a riot police post, an army camp, and a telecommunications building in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province, but caused no casualties.
Still, the US would be taking a risk, too, to stick with Saleh in the face of the popular uprising, in which some 150 people have died since January. The Monitor’s Erik Stier reported this week that “with Saleh's regime's pushed to the brink of collapse, Yemen is in a poor position to rein in extremist activity – including the sort of retaliatory attacks against which the US is seeking to guard its citizens.”
Whatever the long-term political outcome of Saleh’s newly robust cooperation with US forces in seeking out AQAP, the US acted quickly after obtaining information about Awlaki's whereabouts. According to The Wall Street Journal account, on Thursday “the U.S. launched two separate attacks within 45 minutes aimed at Mr. Awlaki in the southern province of Shebwa.”
The three rockets in the first strike missed the pickup truck in which Awlaki and a Saudi were traveling, the report said. Two Yemeni brothers known to harbor militants rushed to the scene, and Awlaki switched vehicles with them, leaving the brothers in the pickup. A single drone then hit the pickup truck, killing the brothers, and Awlaki and the Saudi escaped in the other vehicle, according to the report.
The US is not known to have attacked AQAP inside Yemen since last May.
Awlaki, born in New Mexico, is believed to have been living in Yemen since 2004. Though he is an American citizen, the Obama administration has taken the unusual step of adding him to the CIA target list, saying he is tied to several terrorist attempts, including the Fort Hood mass shooting in Texas in November 2009, the Christmas Day airline bomb plot in 2009, and the Times Square car bomb plot in May 2010. He is said to be a senior, but not a top, AQAP leader. American operatives see him as an inspirational figure who recruits English-speaking militants to attack US interests at home and abroad. He disseminates his sermons and anti-American views widely on the Internet, where he has a large following.