By LOLITA C. BALDOR
Monday, February 22, 2010
WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has approved $150 million in military assistance to Yemen, the country where al-Qaida linked militants planned the failed Christmas Day airliner attack over Detroit, The Associated Press has learned.
Administration officials said the money was approved Friday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and is more than double the amount of U.S. aid to Yemen last year. It will pay for military equipment and training for Yemeni forces.
U.S. officials worry that Yemen is becoming the next significant terrorist staging ground, amid ongoing signs that lower-level al-Qaida operatives have been moving into the country from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Al-Qaida groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia merged last year to become al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and - as demonstrated by the Dec. 25 attack - are openly working to target the U.S. and other western interests.
The money planned for Yemen is a sizable chunk of the $350 million that the Pentagon will dole out to allies this year. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, had requested the additional aid for Yemen and had said all along the U.S. needed to spend more than last year's $67 million.
Officials spoke about the funding on condition of anonymity because it had not been publicly announced.
Details of the financial package approved by Gates were not disclosed, but officials said they expect it to include additional money for other U.S. allies, including some involved in the Afghanistan war.
President Barack Obama, in his budget proposal, is looking to boost the amount of military aid the U.S. gives to other countries to help them counter the terror threats within their borders. Under that plan, the Pentagon fund for training and equipment would jump from $350 million this year to $500 million in 2011.
Gates signaled earlier this month that aid to Yemen was a priority, telling Congress, "It's obvious to us that helping (Yemen's leaders) build their own capabilities in lieu of eventually perhaps having to have U.S. forces present on the ground in substantial numbers or doing this ourselves is clearly much cheaper and much better for us."
In the past year, the Pentagon has provided money for air surveillance including drones, counterterrorism training by special operations forces and efforts to defeat roadside bombs, border and maritime security and other equipment.
U.S. officials have become increasingly worried about the al-Qaida terror threat taking hold in Yemen's vast ungoverned spaces and have been pressing Yemeni officials to clamp down on the militants.
In recent months, Yemeni forces have launched operations against insurgents, but government leaders say they need more equipment and aid for their security forces.
At the same time, the Yemeni officials are careful not to appear too close to the Americans, fearful it would cause a backlash among the population. The Yemeni people are virulently anti-Israel, and by extension anti-American. Sensitive to that concern, U.S. officials have played down the Pentagon's efforts to provide intelligence and other assistance to the Yemeni military.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian suspect in the Dec. 25 airliner bombing attempt, has been cooperating with the FBI and provided information about his contacts in Yemen and the al-Qaida affiliate that operates there.
He also has turned against the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric who claims to be his teacher and has helped the U.S. hunt for the radical preacher, according to law enforcement officials.
The cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki, has emerged as a prominent al-Qaida recruiter and has been tied to the 9/11 hijackers, Abdulmutallab and the suspect in November's deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.