Americans Move to Bring In Equipment and Operatives and Propose New Bases for Fight Against al Qaeda Affiliate
Source: The Wall Street Journal, By ADAM ENTOUS and JULIAN E. BARNES in Washington and MARGARET COKER in Abu Dhabi ,16/11/2010
U.S. officials don't know how many U.S.-trained Yemeni commandos—above, in exercises in San'a last week—have been fighting al Qaeda.
The U.S. is preparing for an expanded campaign against al Qaeda in Yemen, mobilizing military and intelligence resources to enable Yemeni and American strikes and drawing up a longer-term proposal to establish Yemeni bases in remote areas where militants operate.
The developments are part of a U.S. scramble to step up the hunt for members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organization behind a recent failed attempt to blow up two planes over the U.S. using bombs hidden in cargo.
Limited U.S. intelligence experience in Yemen has created "a window of vulnerability" that the U.S. government is "working fast to address," a senior Obama administration official said.
For now, the U.S. gets much of its on-the-ground intelligence from a growing partnership with Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen and has a fruitful informant network in Yemen's tribal areas.
In the rush to build up capabilities, the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies are moving in equipment and personnel from other areas, and over the past year have expanded the size of teams in the U.S. analyzing intelligence on AQAP. The emphasis now is on expanding the number of intelligence operatives and analysts in the field.
There is a debate within the Obama administration and Pentagon about how best to ramp up the fight against AQAP, the Yemen-based terrorist group. Supporters of establishing forward operating bases for Yemeni forces say they would help the weak Yemeni government expand its control and create an opportunity to get a small number of American Special Operations trainers and advisers out of the capital region and into the field.
The proposed bases would vary in size, but could each accommodate scores of troops, including specialized Yemeni commando units, which are trained by the U.S. and would work most closely with the Americans to hunt al Qaeda leaders. The proposal hasn't been presented formally to the full range of policy makers in Washington who would need to sign off on it, officials said, and it is unclear whether the U.S. or another donor, such as Saudi Arabia, would provide funding.
Yemeni officials said the proposal was under discussion. While San'a would support the establishment of bases in some areas, Yemeni officials said the government would be reluctant to allow the U.S. to station trainers in them.
"Why create unnecessary problems? Situating foreigners in security posts would be misconstrued as an unwelcome foreign presence," a Yemeni official said.
U.S. officials said urgent efforts are under way to accelerate delivery of equipment to Yemen, possibly by drawing on U.S. supplies leaving Iraq.
A senior administration official said the U.S. wants to help boost Yemen's ability to move its troops around the country, but didn't comment on any specifics about this effort. "We're looking at a wide range of options and we're working aggressively to expand Yemeni capabilities to fight the terrorists."
Yemen's government in San'a has urged Washington to provide more helicopters and other supplies such as night-vision goggles to aid missions against militants in remote areas.
The Yemeni president has created counterterrorism units— commanded by his sons and nephews—that get training from U.S. Special Operations teams. The Yemenis also use intelligence, planning and equipment from U.S. military and spy agencies to conduct many of their counterterrorism operations.
The Yemenis have had limited success in fighting al Qaeda. In two major offenses launched this summer in Yemen's southern tribal areas, the Yemeni military failed to capture its top targets and lost more than 150 of its own men, according to people in the Yemeni military.
In addition, people familiar with the situation said, U.S. officials don't know how many of the commandos trained by U.S. forces have been involved in fighting al Qaeda, because the Yemeni government hasn't confirmed where the elite personnel are deployed. That has raised concerns that those personnel are being diverted to fight some of the other security threats that Yemen faces, such as separatists in the south and rebels in the north.
Another military proposal to boost the fight against AQAP, reported in The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 1, would shift elite Special Operations hunter-killer teams in Yemen to the control of the CIA. That idea has been met with strong objections from the government of Yemen.
U.S. officials who support the proposal to set up forward operating bases say it would be more palatable to the Yemenis.
Pushing Yemen to send its military and intelligence operatives into the tribal areas is seen by the U.S. as a critical step to building a network of informants needed to support stepped-up strikes against al Qaeda targets.
The need to improve on-the-ground intelligence was underscored by a botched U.S. military strike in May that killed a provincial deputy governor and set off tribal unrest. The final authorization to strike was based on technical surveillance from aircraft, rather than intelligence from sources on the ground, according to officials.
The incident infuriated the Yemen government, and there have been no reported U.S. airstrikes in the country since May. Officials said strikes could resume as intelligence is developed.
In the meantime, a partnership with Saudi Arabia—also an AQAP target—helps to fill the gap, melding American aerial surveillance with ground intelligence from Saudi informants. U.S. and Saudi counterterrorism interests have converged on the Arabian Peninsula, where AQAP is targeting U.S., Saudi and Yemeni interests.
Saudi Arabia has long exerted influence within Yemen, buying the loyalties of local tribal chiefs and informants with cash payouts and other assistance.
U.S. officials credit the Saudis with being particularly adept at tracking detainees who have been released from the U.S. military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. According to three Arab security officials familiar with the situation, a former Guantánamo detainee, Jaber al-Fayfi, was part of a large network of Saudi assets in Yemen that uncovered and provided details about the cargo-bombing plot.