Yemen intensifies fight against Al Qaeda

Yemen forces killed an Al Qaeda cell leader in a firefight Tuesday night and pursued two dozen other militants in Shabwa Province. For the moment, the calculation of the Yemen government is to proactively challenge Al Qaeda – militarily and with aid.

Nasser Nasser/AP
A Yemeni soldier mans a heavy machine gun on top of an army vehicle at a check point in the capital San'a, Yemen Wednesday.

Yemen is intensifying its fight against Al Qaeda, as its forces killed a cell leader in a firefight Tuesday night and pursued two dozen other militants in the southeast Shabwa Province.

Abdullah al-Mehdar was just “one piece of the Al Qaeda puzzle” in Yemen, says a Western diplomat. But the stepped-up military effort is a further sign the government is serious about fighting Al Qaeda.

Two Yemeni soldiers also reportedly died in an ambush on Wednesday.

“This was an operation undertaken by the Yemenis and their intelligence and their forces,” says the Western diplomat in Sanaa. “Their resolve remains, and it has not diminished. They have calculated that regime survival depends on confronting Al Qaeda.”

Separate from Al Qaeda, Yemen’s weak government is also battling Houthi rebels along the border with Saudi Arabia, where thousands have died in a conflict that has surged in recent months and drawn in Saudi forces. Yemen also faces a secessionist rebellion in the south.

The alleged effort by a Nigerian to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day spurred Yemen to intensify its pursuit of an estimated 200 to 300 Al Qaeda militants. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed to be behind the foiled attack.

Yemeni resolve to fight Al Qaeda has fluctuated in the past decade, with sympathizers widely seen to be active within Yemen’s security and intelligence structures.

 President Ali Abdullah Saleh called for “dialogue” with Al Qaeda over the weekend, but his troops have pursued Al Qaeda cells and claimed a number of killings and arrests in recent weeks.

“No one can conspire against his own life,” Minister of Islamic Affairs Hamoud al-Hitar told the Monitor on Wednesday. “Al Qaeda considers the government here in Yemen as infidel, as atheist, and considers it legal to spill the blood of officials.”

“Do you think you will like anyone who wants to spills your blood?” Judge al-Hitar said. “Will you give them flowers?”

The United States is boosting military support, including intelligence and training, to help Yemen, though analysts caution that over-reliance on military force could spark further antigovernment and anti-US sentiment. Civilian deaths from two airstrikes against Al Qaeda targets last December aroused public anger.

In recent years, Washington has quadrupled its aid to Yemen, and last September, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) signed a three-year, $121 million “stabilization program” with Yemen to provide for urgent development projects.

Yemeni officials have called for more development aid to help stave off one Al Qaeda recruitment tool: too little to show, in a nation mired in corruption, for past development efforts.

“Our security agencies are capable of tackling terrorist threats,” Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Reuters on Wednesday. “However, a security or military solution is not sufficient. So the international community has to pay more attention to the economic and development needs of Yemen.”

At least for the moment, the calculation of the Yemen government is to proactively challenge Al Qaeda – both militarily and with aid.

“We’ve seen a significant change from the past approach of neglect, that allowed Al Qaeda to get stronger, to a more operational one in which the moment had arrived [for Yemen] to confront Al Qaeda and its leadership,” says the Western diplomat. “They respond very well to a survival instinct.”

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