Yemen appeared to balk this weekend at a recent US authorization to capture or assassinate Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric tied to 9/11 attackers, the Fort Hood shooter, and the Christmas Day underwear bomber.
“Anwar al-Awlaki has always been looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn’t be considered as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism,” Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told reporters on Saturday, adding that the government was not hunting the US-born cleric believed to be living in Yemen. “The detailed information ... and evidence gathered by US agencies has not been given to Yemen.”
The US has sought in recent months to heighten cooperation with Yemen, where it believes a relatively new offshoot of Al Qaeda is gaining strength. It has also pledged to double its modest military aid to Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest state. The state’s ability to govern has been compromised by a secessionist movement in the south and a rebellion in the north that was only recently resolved.
'The tribes will refuse'
Yemen has vowed to crack down on Islamist militants, but its alignment with US counterterrorism goals risks raising the ire of powerful tribes in remote areas where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates.
“Here in Yemen, we have a rule – in the villages, tribes rule,” explains Hossin Mohammed, an attendant at perfume store in Sanaa, the capital. “You can’t kill someone, even if you take permission from the government; the tribes will refuse. You can’t see your brother killed in front of you and just shut up.”
Indeed, Awlaki’s tribe, which is active in two of those strongholds – Abyan and Shabwa – threatened this weekend to retaliate against any strike targeting the preacher, who is believed to be hiding in the area.
“Whoever risks denouncing our son [Awlaki] will be the target of Al-Awalik weapons,” the statement said, according to the Arabic news outlet. The tribal leaders also warned “against cooperating with the Americans” in the capture or killing of al-Awlaki.
'People will make trouble'
A CIA move to capture or kill Awlaki, the legality of which was debated in the US last week, would anger not only tribal chieftains, however. Cooperation on an Awlaki strike could spark a wider backlash, increasing already high anti-American sentiment in a country battling the appeal of Islamist insurgents linked to AQAP.
“People who like America will hate it after that,” says Khaled, a young salesman in a store selling niqabs, the veil that leaves only a slit for women’s eyes. “Put him in court, but don’t kill him here in Yemen.”
Upon overhearing the conversation, a female customer who was unaware of the US move to target Awlaki, started fuming.
“Why would they do this?” exclaimed the woman, who declined to give her name. “Maybe to catch the criminal, they will kill many people.... People will make trouble, they will be angry with the government.”
Drinking coffee with friends in Sanaa on a visit home from the Netherlands, Yemeni businessman Nasser Ahmad recalls public anger over Yemen’s Dec. 24 air strikes that targeted an alleged Al Qaeda meeting at which Awlaki was believed to be present.
“I don’t know,” says Mr. Ahmad. “Two times? It might be too much.”
Awlaki: Leading proponent of Western jihad
US intelligence has been tracking Awlaki for more than 10 years, when the FBI investigated a claim that he was recruiting for Osama bin Laden but didn't find enough evidence to warrant prosecution. The 9/11 Commission found that he had met with two of the attackers, though it's unclear what came of that meeting.
Awlaki, who is believed to have moved to Yemen more than five years ago, came under fresh scrutiny when reports came out that his e-mail correspondence with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had encouraged the American Muslim's decision to kill a dozen fellow soldiers at the Fort Hood military base in Texas in November 2009.
In addition, the Nigerian man known as the "Christmas Day underwear bomber" who tried but failed to detonate a bomb aboard an airplane descending into Detroit, has reportedly said he was inspired by Awlaki.
This patchy history points to a man who, espousing the same salafi branch of Islam that Bin Laden favors, provided ideological fuel for actions designed to kill Americans.
Yemen reportedly asked the CIA for help in apprehending Awlaki just prior to the Fort Hood shooting, but the CIA said it lacked enough evidence. Now, the tables are turned.