Yemen diverted US counterrorism aid meant to tackle Al Qaeda, WikiLeaks reveals

A December 2009 cable, published by WikiLeaks, shows that Yemen deployed a US-funded counterterrorism unit to fight domestic rebels instead of Al Qaeda.

Yemeni Army/AP/File
In this Aug. 31 file photo, Yemeni tanks are seen in Saada province, Yemen. According to a December 2009 cable from the US embassy in Sanaa, shows that Yemen deployed a US-funded counterterrorism unit to fight against militant Houthi rebels in the northern governorate of Saada during a surge in fighting last year.

As the US weighs another possible increase in Yemen aid early next year, WikiLeaks has revealed that Yemen is diverting at least some US counterterrorism resources to tackle other domestic priorities – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh's enemies.

According to a December 2009 cable from the US embassy in Sanaa, a counterterrorism unit (CTU) trained and funded by the Americans to hunt down Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives was deployed instead against militant Houthi rebels in the northern governorate of Saada during a surge in fighting last year.

“Increasingly desperate to defeat the Houthis, the [Yemeni government] continues to insist that fighting the Houthis is a legitimate component of CT [counterterrorism] operations, thus justifying the use of CTU forces in Saada," reads the State Department cable. "Untrained to fight this type of conflict, the overstretched CTU has reportedly sustained significant casualties, missed training opportunities and been derailed from its principal mission: to combat AQAP.”

The cable underscores – and appears to at least partially validate – concerns that millions of dollars in US counterterrorism aid may be used not only to fight Al Qaeda, but to address other Yemeni priorities not shared by Washington.

AQAP only one of Yemen's many concerns

Yemen's weak government, an increasingly important partner in America's effort to protect itself against terrorist attacks, is not only concerned about the reemergence of Al Qaeda activity in recent years. President Saleh, who governs the Arab world's poorest country, also faces a southern secessionist movement, tribal tensions, and a resource crunch.

Some reports have warned that Yemen could become a failed state, leaving AQAP even freer to operate and launch attacks – including on Western targets. Perhaps sensing that the US has developed a stronger interest in preventing such an outcome, Yemen's government has sought to leverage its unglamorous image in exchange for US aid.

“If you don't help, this country will become worse than Somalia,” Mr. Saleh said to US Chief Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan, according to a cable from September 2009.

With two high-profile AQAP terrorism attempts against America in the past year – the 2009 Christmas Day bomber and the October cargo plane bomb plot – Washington has only become more anxious to shut down the Al Qaeda franchise, and thus potentially more open to Yemen's overtures.

US doubled aid, despite questions

Critics of the Saleh government have long claimed that the fight against Al Qaeda has been beneficial to Yemen’s government so it can garner financial and military aid for its own domestic agenda.

This was the case during the last round of fighting against the Houthi rebels when the government not only made use of the US-trained counterterrorism squad, but also US-provided armored vehicles and humvees.

US diplomats admitted in cables that Saleh intentionally tailors his discussions with American officials in order to “elicit the necessary level of political, economic, and military assistance,” and that the US “has repeatedly questioned [the Yemeni government’s] use of US military equipment and US-trained forces intended to combat AQAP in the war against the Houthi rebels.”

Yet American counterterrorism aid to Yemen more than doubled in 2010.

Yemeni leaders under fire from lawmakers

In the past year, Yemen has touted a stepped-up campaign against AQAP members, which have relative freedom of movement in Yemen’s countryside where the central government has little control.

Yemen's government, which faces vehement public opposition to US military involvement in the country's affairs, has sought to portray itself as acting independently against AQAP. But the cables confirmed that Yemen’s leaders knew about US air strikes against AQAP over the past year.

On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minster for Security and Defense Affairs Rashad Al Alimi will appear before Yemen’s parliament to be questioned about telling Yemeni legislators that American-led attacks in the southern Abyan province last December had been carried out by Yemeni forces, as was revealed by WikiLeaks.

Ali Ashal, a member of parliament (MP) from the opposition Al Islah party, told the Monitor that he believed this lie was the “most serious" revelation from WikiLeaks.

When a group of MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties were questioned by the Monitor as to what sort of American aid the Yemeni population would accept, they responded in one voice with a resounding, "We want development! We want help with education and health!" But the men did not think the US was interested in providing that type of assistance.

Dissension within Obama administration?

Indeed, the strong Yemeni reaction to US involvement points to a dilemma for American policy in Yemen.

Analysts have reiterated that quick fix, American military strikes against Al Qaeda, such as was carried out in Abyan last December, could end up backfiring by stirring up anti-US sentiment.

The State Department has sought to employ a comprehensive strategy to tackle Yemen's Al Qaeda threat that includes addressing issues of good governance and socio-economic development in poverty-stricken Yemen. But reports that Washington is considering other options, including elite "hunter-killer" units operating under the CIA's auspices, suggest disagreement within the Obama administration about the best way to accomplish US goals in the country.

The Yemeni government, for its part, has continued to deny that America is involved in direct military action in Yemen. The WikiLeaks cables were inaccurate, it maintains. They “have not conveyed truly what has occurred in such meetings,” said a statement released by the official Saba news agency.

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