Yemen's delicate dance between US pressure, Al Qaeda threat

Amid intense US pressure in the wake of the Yemen bomb plot, President Saleh's government has launched a manhunt and put Anwar al-Awlaki on trial in absentia.

A Yemeni policeman takes position outside the state security court in San'a, Yemen, on Nov. 2. Yemen put a US-born radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, on trial in absentia Tuesday, accusing him and two other men with plotting to kill foreigners and of being members of al-Qaida.

Four days after a Yemeni bomb plot targeting the United States was foiled by international intelligence agencies, Yemen has ramped up its fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in what some see as an attempt to preclude more direct US involvement.

The boom of military jets sounded over Yemen's capital, Sanaa, throughout Tuesday as Yemeni forces reportedly went after Saudi national Ibrahim al-Asiri – the suspected bombmaker in the operation.

And in a major gesture to the US, President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government announced today that it has started court proceedings against Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in absentia for plotting to murder foreigners.

“The Yemeni government has realized that Anwar al-Awlaki has become a pet project for the Pentagon,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The fact that they have gone ahead and opened up the proceedings now is a step they are taking in the hope that it will preempt any US action.”

“Anytime something happens like this – whether it’s the parcel bomb plot or the bomb attempt on Christmas Day – Yemen gets really nervous, especially with the recent track record America has going into Iraq and Afghanistan,” adds Mr. Johnsen.

Yemen caught between US, domestic interests

The moves, which come amid intensified pressure from Washington, reflect the delicate balance both countries must strike between fighting an effective counterterrorism operation and satisfying the very different demands of their populaces.

After the US led two recent invasions – in Iraq and Afghanistan – in the name of routing terrorism, Yemen is anxious to avoid US intervention.

Americans, however, are increasingly concerned about curbing militant activity in Yemen, with former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff suggesting yesterday that Yemen "may not be up to the job.”

“For the Americans, it's difficult not to overreact," says Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think the knee-jerk reaction would be a military response, which will not improve security and instability in Yemen.”

The US is reportedly mulling heightened actions, including a CIA-run hit squad. But cracking down on AQAP requires a sensitive approach in Yemen, where the public doesn't see AQAP as a primary concern and strong tribal networks are known to shelter militants who share clan ties.

Caught between US demands and Yemeni antipathy, Mr. Saleh has stressed – in what many analysts say is an effort to save face in front of his constituents – that while his government worked with outside governments on intelligence gathering, it will not accept outside military interference.

“We acknowledge that we have a problem with terrorism, specifically the presence of Al Qaeda, and we continue to pay a high price,” said Saleh at a press conference on Saturday night. “While we appreciate and express gratitude to those parties that provide us with good intelligence be it a fraternal or friendly nation, foreign interference in our internal affairs is not welcome.”

Intricate balancing act with tribal sheikhs

Yemen’s government holds its country together by playing an intricate balancing act with powerful tribal sheikhs that, for example, may have in the past prevented the Yemeni government from handing Awlaki over to the Americans.

This puts US counterterrorism strategy in a difficult position, as circumventing Yemeni tribal relations could have dire consequences for this nation, which already has a weak central government.

Additionally, direct American military action such drone strikes, which often kill civilians, could work as a propaganda tool for AQAP in areas of the country where populations are already disgruntled with the central government.

Already, citizens in the governorates believed to be AQAP hotbeds – including Abyan and Shabwa – are upset with the air strikes launched over the past 10 months, at least some of which appear to be joint US-Yemeni operations.

“The opinion of everyone on the streets of Abyan and Shabwa are against the attacks and that the attack from both Yemen and America are wrong,” said Fadhel Ali, a local journalist and resident of Zinjibar in Abyan province where a strike last December killed 35 women and children as well as 14 militants, according to an Amnesty International report. “They don’t have any results. They just make civilians scared. They kills civilians not al Qaeda.”

US weighs covert ops in Yemen

A Wall Street Journal article published yesterday saying that the Obama administration is considering increasing covert operations in the country, including an elite "hunter-killer" squad, may have put increased pressure on the Yemeni government to prove it is capable of fighting Al Qaeda without overt Western military intervention.

But Johnsen, at Princeton University, suggests that the US is demanding too much, too soon.

“No immediate action is going to yield the results that the US wants to see, which is a reduced Al Qaeda that is no longer able to threaten the US,” he says. "The US has neglected Yemen for a long time and now it's paying the price for that neglect.”

As for Yemen, the "big test" will come if and when AQAP launches a successful attack against the West, says Mr. Boucek of Carnegie. “America will be forced to respond... and what happens then?"

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