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Mr. Awlaki, thought to be a senior figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was charged last week with plotting to kill foreigners. The move to order his arrest comes just over a week after a plot by AQAP to send bombs on cargo planes to the US was discovered and stopped. And it comes amid signals that Yemen is under increased pressure to take care of its terrorism problem before the US decides to intervene more forcefully.
Awlaki is suspected to be hiding in the volatile Shabwa Province, where government forces have previously launched attacks on Al Qaeda. CNN reports that Yemeni security forces sent hundreds of additional troops to the province to carry out the judge’s order to “forcibly arrest” the cleric.
But finding him will prove difficult. Awlaki, a dual US and Yemeni citizen, has already been placed on a US list of terrorists to capture or kill. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, US authorities have accused him of spurring the Fort Hood shooting suspect Maj. Nidal Hassan into action, and inspiring the so-called “underwear bomber,” the Nigerian man who attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his clothes on a flight to Detroit last Christmas Day.
Awlaki, who speaks English, uses the Internet to disseminate sermons calling for violence against US and other targets. YouTube said it had removed some clips of his sermons from its site Wednesday, reports The New York Times.
Awlaki was charged as a co-defendant during the trial of Hisham Mohammed Asem, who is accused of killing a French citizen last month in a shooting attack on the office of an Austrian oil and gas company. Al Jazeera reports that prosecutors say Mr. Asem corresponded with Awlaki, who urged him to attack foreigners. Asem denies the charges. Awlaki’s cousin has also been charged.
The New York Times reports that it is unusual for a Yemeni judge to issue an arrest warrant so quickly after the suspect fails to appear in court. And the Monitor reported last week that some see Yemen’s quick moves against Al Qaeda in the wake of the recent bomb plot as an effort to preempt a more direct US role against the terrorist group in Yemen.
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.”
And Yemen may also be eager to prove its effectiveness in fighting Al Qaeda to secure US counterterrorism funding. Foreign Policy magazine recently reported that the Yemeni president is desperately trying to persuade US officials to increase US support for Yemen.
The scene in Yemen's capital Sept. 20 was almost embarrassing, according to those who looked on: John Brennan, the influential White House counterterrorism advisor, was trying to leave Sanaa after a fly-in, fly-out visit with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh about his country's burgeoning al Qaeda branch.
But Saleh was too busy pleading for U.S. cash to let the 25-year CIA veteran drive away, according to people familiar with Brennan's visit. Clutching Brennan by the arm, Yemen's burly president of 30-plus years stood at the open door of Brennan's limo, pressing his appeals that the United States pay up now, not later, on the $300 million that Barack Obama's administration is planning to give Yemen over the near term to help it combat al Qaeda.