U.S. increases efforts to boost security in Yemen amid increasing terror threat
Experienced fighters returning to Yemen from the Iraq war and radicalized U.S. citizens who have taken up residence in that country have broadened assessments of the threat posed by the al-Qaeda affiliate there, according to administration and congressional officials.
In addition to flooding Yemen with intelligence resources, the United States has stepped up military strikes from the air against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and pressed the Yemeni government, which has offered to negotiate with the group, to toughen its approach.
As Yemen's foreign minister arrived in Washington this week for consultations, the State Department announced Tuesday that it had designated the al-Qaeda branch there, known as AQAP, as a foreign terrorist organization, a move that allows U.S. prosecution of those who are associated with or provide assistance to the group, which was formed only last January. A United Nations sanctions committee also announced Tuesday that it had added AQAP and its senior leaders to a U.N. blacklist that allows assets to be frozen internationally and imposes travel restrictions.
An investigative report scheduled for release Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cites U.S. concern over as many as three dozen American citizens who converted to Islam in prison and moved to Yemen after their release in the past year. Some of them have "dropped off the radar" of U.S. and Yemeni law enforcement and may be receiving al-Qaeda training there, the report says.
The report cautions that U.S. officials said they had no specific evidence of such training, but a committee staffer said that "everything related to Yemen is now being ratcheted up." As U.S. citizens, these people do not come under the purview of the CIA but are "being watched," the staffer said, by the FBI and State Department security officials attached to the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.
"U.S. officials said they are on heightened alert because of the potential threat from extremists carrying American passports and the related challenges involved in detecting and stopping homegrown operatives," the report says.
An additional concern, it says, "is a group of nearly 10 non-Yemeni Americans who traveled to Yemen, converted to Islam, became fundamentalists, and married Yemeni women so they could remain in the country." One U.S. official, it reports, described them as "blond-haired, blue-eyed types" who "fit a profile of Americans whom al-Qaeda has sought to recruit over the past several years."
Intelligence lapses leading to the attempted bombing of a U.S. jetliner on Christmas Day and the growing threat from Yemen will be the subject of a series of congressional hearings over the next several weeks, beginning with testimony Wednesday by Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. On Thursday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has scheduled a closed-door hearing.
Administration and military officials insisted that the intensified focus on Yemen predated the embarrassing failure to prevent the attempted airplane bombing last month. They noted that White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan made two visits there last year and that Yemen was the subject of 15 meetings of the National Security Council "deputies committee" as well as numerous meetings of top national security officers. U.S. military counterterrorism trainers and CIA intelligence collectors on the ground there were increased last year along with the budget for such operations. Twice in December, U.S. precision-guided missiles struck al-Qaeda targets in Yemen; an additional strike took place last week.
The biggest surprise of the Christmas incident, a senior administration official said, was that planning for the attack and training of the alleged bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, took place in Yemen despite the fact that "we had that place sort of blanketed, that we were working it very closely."
"What Mr. Abdulmutallab demonstrates is that we need to heighten our vigilance about those who may have been in Yemen, or that the Yemeni AQAP are working with abroad," including U.S. passport-holders, the official said. This source and military and counterterrorism officials agreed to discuss the still-volatile policy and intelligence situation in Yemen only on the condition of anonymity.
"Individuals who are working this issue need to be in place in Yemen," the official said of the growing U.S. presence there. "We do not have [military] boots on the ground and we have no intention . . . of having boots on the ground. But we want to make sure that we have the expertise and capabilities that can work with the Yemenis to provide them with the wherewithal and the capacity that they need."
The official expressed frustration at a recent offer by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to negotiate with AQAP leaders who agree to lay down their arms. "Al-Qaeda is an organization to be destroyed, not to be negotiated with in any manner," he said. The administration would "continue to press the Yemenis to defeat al-Qaeda, not to talk with them." Officials are "mindful" to avoid inflaming the domestic situation with a heavy U.S. footprint, he said, "but there are certain near-term and immediate imperatives that we need to pursue."
Brennan's conversations with Saleh and other Yemeni officials, he said, have been "pretty intense . . . and rather direct in terms of what we expected the Yemenis to do vis-a-vis al-Qaeda and what we were prepared to do in the event it was not addressed . . . not just collect information about them but take aggressive action to denigrate their capabilities." The December air attacks, in conjunction with Yemeni air, ground and intelligence forces, were seen as proof that the government was starting to get the message.
Saleh's offer to negotiate, U.S. officials said, is based on a failure to understand that AQAP is a different breed than an earlier organization, al-Qaeda in Yemen, that was largely decimated early this decade by coordinated U.S. and Yemeni operations. The new group, whose leadership was formed by terrorists who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006 and Yemenis released from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under the Bush administration, combines al-Qaeda affiliates in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen and is bolstered by insurgents returning from Iraq with what one counterterrorism official called "battlefield expertise" and tactical knowledge.
"As the Iraq conflict came down, you found that a number of those al-Qaeda types who went to Iraq to fight came back with hardened skills and new techniques," the senior administration official said.
"These individuals who wanted to go and fight are now being plugged into the existing organization in Yemen," said Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. "For a long time, there was no real organizational infrastructure for them to fit into. Now, there is something."