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Officials: Yemen a Bigger Security Threat Than Libya

March 29, 2011


WASHINGTON — As the United States spearheads the attack against Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s military assets, key former officials said an even bigger threat to U.S. national security comes from Yemen, a country that hosts many militants and is now enmeshed in a civil uprising that is threatening to unseat U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh (see GSN, Feb. 10).

(Mar. 28) - Protesters on Tuesday chant slogans during a demonstration calling for an end to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule. Unrest in Yemen could threaten U.S. efforts to fight extremism in the country, key former officials said (Ahmad Gharabli/Getty Images).

Saleh has been a crucial American ally in combating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that chief U.S. counterterrorism analyst Michael Leiter recently called the “most significant risk to the U.S. homeland” and the most poised to successfully attack American cities (see GSN, Dec. 21, 2010). Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and government officials said the current instability in Yemen appears likely to threaten already strained U.S. counterterrorism efforts and could provide new opportunities for AQAP to launch attacks.

“From a security standpoint, our interest in what happens in Yemen is much more significant than our interest in Libya,” Chertoff told National Journal. “In Libya it’s a humanitarian issue — there’s some security issue, but really, Yemen is a critical issue.”

Saleh’s three-decade rule appears to be hanging by a thread, as reports late on Thursday suggested that Saleh could resign “within days,” which would, albeit belatedly, meet protesters’ demands that he step down immediately.

Facing a public outcry, Saleh already promised that he would not seek another term in 2013. With the recent violence, he had reportedly been trying to time his exit strategy to elections by the end of the year. But tens of thousands of protesters demanded he step down immediately after a bloody week in Sana’a, where 50 antigovernment protesters were killed and 100 injured. A wave of Yemeni diplomats, officials, and top generals have defected and one general deployed tanks in the capital to protect the protesters.

What began as a relatively peaceful protest is now the most serious political crisis Yemen has faced in years, a U.S. counterterrorism official said in an interview. The U.S. is paying close attention to the “increasing fractures” within Saleh’s power base, but there has been less contact recently between the United States and Yemen on counterterrorism, said the official, who could not discuss the delicate situation in Yemen on the record. “Any time your counterterrorism partners are distracted by unrest in their own country and by fears for their own political survival — that could be problematic.”

Chertoff said if the government cannot keep order “and the country starts to pull apart or they simply become preoccupied, that is pretty much an open invitation to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to increase its freedom of movement and its recruiting.”

“That is a problem for us,” said Chertoff, who currently runs the Chertoff Group security consultancy.

Before the recent unrest, two mail bombs crafted by a notorious al-Qaeda bombmaker in Yemen were intercepted in October before reaching Jewish synagogues in Chicago, and eight months earlier, airline passengers succeeded in stopping a Nigerian man trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen from blowing up a Detroit-bound plane (see GSN, Nov. 3, 2010). Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — currently on a U.S. capture-or-kill list — is thought to be hiding in Yemen’s restive south. Awlaki was recently charged in Yemen for trying to kill foreigners in connection with the case against Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who went on a shooting spree in 2009 at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas.

In a rare address to a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters on Friday — a rally that rivaled the massive “Day of Rage” protests calling for Saleh’s resignation — Saleh said that he’s prepared to step down but doesn’t trust the opposition, whom he likened to “drug dealers,” the AP reported. Speaking before the Friday address, the counterterrorism official cautioned that Saleh’s future is still uncertain, as the Yemeni president “is the consummate dealmaker in a country where dealmaking is a well-practiced art.”

“So it’s too soon to be making predictions about whether he’ll go or stay. But he has a lot of work to do,” he added.

Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, said uncertainty about who might replace Saleh combined with the United States’ need to balance “the tactical imperative” of dealing with al-Qaeda is why the administration is urging restraint on both sides.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” Cressey said. “If Saleh goes … our ability to work with the Yemenis is going to be up in the air.”

For the time being, U.S. counterterrorism agencies are focused on developing information on terrorists in Yemen. “We are exploring all options based on all contingencies,” the counterterrorism official said.

A Congressional Research Service report earlier this month cited anonymous U.S. officials who said Predator drones were patrolling Yemen’s skies in search of AQAP leaders.

CRS also cited reports that CIA teams and special operations forces trainers — as well as surveillance systems — are in the country. The U.S. government provided about $290 million in total aid to Yemen in 2010, and the Defense Department has proposed increasing security assistance to $1.2 billion over a five- or six-year period, the report said.

The counterterrorism official said al-Qaeda is currently “sitting on the sidelines” but it would be “unsurprising” if they tried to mount some kind of operation. “They’re an opportunistic organization,” he said.

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