US sends troops to Yemen as Al Qaeda gains ground

Civil unrest in Yemen has enabled Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which perpetrated the foiled underwear bomb plot, to expand its reach. US troops are arriving to train Yemeni soldiers.

Courtesy of Yemen Defence Ministry/Reuters
Army soldiers sit on a tank at an army position in the southern city of Zinjibar, where clashes between Yemen army forces and Al Qaeda-linked militants have taken place for several weeks.

The week after revelations by a double agent that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was trying to take down a US airliner with an underwear bomb, the Pentagon announced that it has begun sending US troops into Yemen.

The move is part of a US effort to increase pressure on the terrorist outfit based in Yemen at a time when the Yemeni government is weak and only now beginning to emerge from a period of political turmoil. The troops will help train Yemeni soldiers, and together with a campaign of drone strikes and an increased intelligence presence, the aim is to hold AQAP in check while rebuilding the Yemeni government's capacity to fight its own battles.

US forces had been on the ground training Yemeni forces last year, but President Obama suspended the mission in the wake of political turmoil in the country. In February, Yemen's autocratic ruler of 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was replaced in a democratic election, making the return of US troops possible.

But the security situation in Yemen has worsened in recent months, with AQAP taking advantage of the civil unrest that grew as Mr. Saleh's grasp on power loosened. “It’s clear that there are more [AQAP] volunteers, there are more sanctuaries” in Yemen, says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

It is also clear that these AQAP forces have been able to take arms and equipment that were either abandoned or lost by Yemeni forces and use them to wage attacks on the government and expand their base of operations, Dr. Cordesman adds.

But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denied that this could portend a greater presence for US ground forces. “Yeah, there’s no consideration of that,” Secretary Panetta responded when asked in a Pentagon briefing Thursday whether he would rule out using ground forces in Yemen “at some point.”

Added Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, the point is “trying to build their capacity, not use our own.”

This will likely include expanded US intelligence assets on the ground. “Some of these you use to cooperate very closely with the Yemenis, and some you use to figure out who’s on first,” Cordesman says. 

In this effort to understand relationships between AQAP and other terrorist groups, the US government will also expand intelligence operations with the Saudis, with whom there is now a “sharply improved level of cooperation,” he adds. 

AQAP threatens Saudi Arabia as well as Oman, which borders Yemen. The British government has long had links in Oman, which are also proving helpful to US forces, Cordesman notes.

For now, though, drone attacks like the one that killed Fahd Mohammed al-Quso, a top AQAP operative, over the weekend will be the US government’s “only way of directly attacking AQAP as it builds up” its base of operations, he says. 

If the Yemeni government begins to achieve more stability, then it can dispatch its own forces to take on AQAP operatives and the US can suspend its drone campaign. There remain plenty of uncertainties, however. “None of us know where this is going,” he says.

In the meantime, it is clear that AQAP is “a threat,” Panetta emphasized. “No one in any way underestimates the fact that all of them represent a concern for the United States in terms of our national security.” 

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