For nearly a year, the United States has waged a war against
al-Qaida in Yemen, largely in deep secrecy. But the militants appear unfazed,
and the fragile government of this poor Arab nation is pushing back against
American pressure to escalate the fight.
The regime of Yemen's longtime leader, President Ali
Abdullah Saleh, is weak, dependent for its survival on the loyalty of unruly
tribes and alliances with Muslim extremists. Yemeni authorities also fear too
harsh a fight against al-Qaida will alienate a deeply conservative Muslim
population where anti-American sentiment is widespread. As a result, the main
Yemeni tactic is often to negotiate with tribes to try to persuade them to hand
over fugitive militants.
Yemeni officials say Washington is pressing them to be more
"The Americans are pushing hard and the government is
resisting hard," said Yasser al-Awadi, a senior lawmaker close to Saleh,
Yemen's leader of 32 years.
Al-Qaida militants have been building up their presence for
several years in Yemen, finding refuge with tribes in the remote mountain
ranges where San'a has little control. But they made a stunning show of their
international reach in December, when they allegedly plotted a failed Christmas
Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet over the U.S. The Obama administration
branded al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula a global threat, and has dramatically
stepped up its alliance with Saleh's regime to uproot it.
Around 50 elite U.S. military experts are in the country
training Yemeni counterterrorism forces - a number that has doubled over the
past year. Washington is funneling some $150 million in military assistance to Yemen
this year for helicopters, planes and other equipment, along with a similar
amount for humanitarian and development aid. San'a says its troops are fanned
out around the country, hunting for militants.
Still, there's been little visible progress.
In recent weeks, al-Qaida gunmen have been bold enough to
carry out assaults in the capital, San'a, including a failed ambush on a top
British diplomat in her car. The government touted as a major success a fierce
weeklong siege in September by Yemeni troops against an al-Qaida force in the
provincial town of Houta, but most of the militants escaped into nearby,
Days after that siege, the governor of the same province,
Shabwa, narrowly escaped gunmen who ambushed his convoy. In nearby Abyan
province, an al-Qaida campaign of assassinations that has killed dozens of
police and army officers prompted authorities last month to ban motorcycles in
urban areas to try to stop cycle-mounted gunmen.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida in Yemen's top leadership remains
intact, issuing a Web video last week threatening to cross into neighboring
Saudi Arabia to assassinate senior security officials. "Look under your
beds before you sleep, you might find one of our bombs," the video warned
Saudis, whose government is viewed by al-Qaida as not Islamic, corrupt and too
close to America.
And the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical
Islamic cleric who Washington says has become a leader in the group, may have
gone cold. The governor of Shabwa province, where al-Awlaki is believed to be
hiding in the mountains, told The Associated Press he hasn't been sighted in
two months and cast doubt whether the cleric was still in the province.
American officials have been careful not to show any sign of
friction. "We believe that abilities of the Yemeni security system are
constantly increasing," the State Department's No. 3 diplomat, William
Burns, told reporters after meeting Saleh last week.
Still, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi recently
brought one dispute out into the open, saying San'a had put a stop to American
warplanes or drones carrying out strikes against al-Qaida targets, a tactic
that Washington has relied on against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Pakistan.
In December, three airstrikes were carried out against
purported al-Qaida targets in two provinces and outside San'a. At least six
al-Qaida militants are thought to have been killed in those strikes, along with
more than 40 civilians. In a Sept. 30 interview with the Arab daily Al-Hayat,
al-Qirbi acknowledged the assaults were carried out by U.S. aircraft.
"American strikes have ceased since December because
the Yemeni government insisted that these strikes don't yield any
results," he said.
American officials have refused to confirm that U.S. planes
carried out the strikes.
A senior U.S. administration official, however, insisted any
actions were aimed at thwarting terrorist threats.
"We go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties
when taking coordinated efforts with our Yemeni partners against
al-Qaida," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because
of the sensitivity of the subject.
Yemen at first said its warplanes carried out the strikes to
avoid an angry public backlash, according to Yemeni officials, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the
Visible signs of the American counter-terror campaign here
are few. Deep in the country of 23 million people, villagers report the
round-the-clock sound of drones, presumed to be American craft watching
militants. Dozens of informers have been recruited in recent months to keep
U.S. counterterrorism officials posted on the militants' movements and chatter,
Yemeni security officials say. They also say the Yemenis submit to their U.S.
counterparts daily progress reports on efforts to track down al-Awlaki.
With U.S. airstrikes off the table - and American officials
saying there is no intention for U.S. troops to fight on the ground - it is up
to Yemen's police and military to wage the battle. But their ability to operate
is deeply hampered.
Al-Qaida fighters - estimated to number around 300 - have
built up strongholds in the provinces of Shabwa, Abyan, Jouf and Marib, regions
of daunting mountain ranges where central authority has nearly no presence.
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
At least 70 percent of Shabwa, for example, is a no-go area
for security forces, leaving most under the control of armed tribesmen who
offer protection to al-Qaida militants, Yemeni security officials say.
Yemen and Washington also disagree on how much of a real
threat al-Qaida presents. Yemeni lawmakers and tribal chiefs often maintain
that the danger is a myth propagated by Washington to impose its control over
the country - or by the San'a government to give it an excuse to strike its
Yemen also faces an on-off Shiite rebellion in the north and
a separate secessionist movement in the south.
The United States sees al-Awlaki as the most notorious English-speaking
advocate of terrorism directed at America, with a dangerously strong appeal to
Muslims in the West, and Washington has put him on a list of militants to kill
or capture. U.S. inestigators say e-mails link him to the Army psychiatrist
accused of last year's killings at Fort Hood, Texas, and that he helped prepare
Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused in the Christmas airline bombing
But in Yemen - al-Awlaki's ancestral land - only a few
people have heard of him. Thoe who have say they cannot understand what the
fuss is all about. And if he is captured, he will not be extradited to the
United States because Yemen's constitution forbids it, Foreign Minister
al-Qirbi has said.
"I believe his role and importance are grossly
exaggerated," Shabwa's governor Ali Hassan al Ahmadi told AP. "I
don't think that what the Americans are saying about him is totally baseless,
but I am confident that it is exaggerated."
More broadly, the government is also reluctant to wage an
all-out fight because of Saleh's alliances with militant Islamic groups,
including jihadi veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya and
Iraq. He has let their influence grow as part of an elaborate divide-and-rule
game that has helped him stay in power.
In a sign of his accommodation with them, Saleh in late
September named powerful Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani - considered by
Washington "a spcially designated global terrorist" - as the
"religious overseer" of the ruling party's ongoing negotiations with
opposition parties over electoral reform.
Al-Zindani, who is thought by the United States to be a
one-time spiritual mentor of Osama bin Laden, has warned that the U.S.-backed
fight against l-Qaida could lead to "foreign occupation" of Yemen.
"The regime has from the start depended on a tripod of
military, religious and tribal bases," said prominent analyst Abdel-Ghani
al-Iryani. "It continues to think to this day that it's in control of the
situation, but I personally think they no longer can."
Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in San'a and Kimberly
Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.