There are two good reasons the cover-of-night, US-led commando raid that rescued eight Al Qaeda hostages in Yemen Tuesday received none of the fanfare and public back-slapping of previous successful counterterror operations.
One is obvious: No Americans were among the hostages – six Yemenis, one Saudi, and one Ethiopian – brought to safety after an intense firefight at the cave in remote eastern Yemen where the hostages were being held.
But the other explanation is that the Obama administration is very much interested in seeing the successful operation, which included both US and Yemeni forces, reinforce Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. He is a stalwart US ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in the region, but his grasp on power has been repeatedly shaken over recent months.
The “let Yemen have this one” response could be seen in the Pentagon’s remarks on the high-risk raid, which included as many as two dozen US Special Operations forces. In fact, the Pentagon declined to offer any details of the operation, referring reporters instead to the Yemeni government for an account.
“I would just tell you we continue to support Yemeni counterterrorism efforts and would refer you to them to talk to any operations,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.
Some kind of bilateral consensus that Mr. Hadi would benefit from an image of leadership in conjunction with the operation could also be seen in Yemeni reports of the raid, which were based on statements from the country’s Supreme Security Committee. The committee spoke of Yemeni security forces killing seven Al Qaeda kidnappers to rescue the hostages, but did not mention US participation in the raid.
It was Hadi, ushered into power on the wings of a US-brokered deal, who had requested US participation in the rescue operation, according to The New York Times. The Yemeni leader has been in power for two years but has been increasingly sidelined as militias and other groups – some frustrated by the government’s inability to rout the forces of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP – have encroached on the government’s authority.
In September one group, a Shiite sect known as the Houthis, shocked the country by marching into the capital of Sana and seizing government buildings and military bases.
The United States has had particular interest in Yemen ever since AQAP began operating there in 2009 and launched some elaborate but ultimately unsuccessful terrorist plots against America.
It was AQAP that dispatched the so-called Christmas Day underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate explosives as the flight he was on approached Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. A year later, an AQAP plot to send bombs to Jewish sites in Chicago via commercial cargo planes was also foiled.
The US designated AQAP a foreign terrorist organization in 2009, about the time terrorism experts began speculating that the Yemen-based Al Qaeda franchise had surpassed its parent organization in Pakistan as the most dangerous terrorist threat to the US.