Investigation

Inside Yemen’s Shadow War Arsenal

Inside Yemen’s Shadow War Arsenal

Since November of 2011, the United States has pledged nearly $600 million to Yemen for everything from spy drones to opinion polls to pickup trucks as part of a shadow war to fight terrorism there. But how much Washington is getting for its money is an open question, even within U.S. government circles.

Reports that the Yemenis may have helped to foil a major terrorist plot against Western interests in the region point up the need for an effective security assistance program in a country now re-emerging as a frontline in what used to be called the war on terror. (Even if the Yemeni government itself finds the plot a bit hard to believe.) It’s also become equally clear that instability and a lack of oversight has posed real challenges to tracking U.S. counterterrorism aid there. The security threat that forced the State Department to shutter more than 20 embassies and diplomatic posts this week reflects the increasingly "diffuse" threat from al Qaeda. But the plot that Yemeni officials claim they thwarted Wednesday now raises questions about how effective American counterterrorism assistance is and whether more, or less aid, is needed in the future.

Only a portion of the $600 million committed since late 2011 goes directly to fight terrorism — about $250 million, according to State Department officials. The rest goes towards "helping to strengthen governance and institutions on which Yemen’s long-term progress depends," as then-White House counterterrorism czar (and unofficial envoy to Yemen) John Brennan explained last year. That includes cash to "empower women," "combat corruption," and provide "food vouchers, safe drinking water, and basic health services," Brennan added.

But even that non-military aid can sometimes come with a hard edge. Last year, the State Department paid out $2.2 million to Griffin Security, a Yemeni contractor specializing in "close protection," "surveillance systems," and "maritime security services," according to the company’s website. On June 26, Foggy Bottom sent another $3.1 million to Advanced C4 Solutions, a Tampa-based business with strong military and intelligence community ties, for an unspecified "administrative management" contract. Six days later, the State Department executed a second, $1.3 million deal with the same firm — which publicly declares itself a specialist in computer network attacks — for "translation and interpretation services."

Overt security assistance was put on hold for about a year when former President Ali Abdullah Saleh brutally cracked down on his people. But that ban has been lifted, and the spigot is once again open. The Pentagon is outfitting the Yemenis with weapons, short takeoff and landing spy planes, night vision goggles, and even Raven drones to help Yemeni security forces to strengthen their effectiveness against internal threats and extremist activity, according to defense officials.

Those assistance programs come with criticisms, however, even from within the U.S. government. The primary concern: that the U.S. lacks the capacity to oversee objectives in Yemen. The Government Accountability Office recently faulted American assistance to Yemen, saying that "Yemen’s unstable security situation constrains U.S. training of Yemeni security forces, restricts oversight of civilian assistance projects, and endangers Yemeni nationals who work for the United States."  

GAO investigators cited the threats to Yemenis working for the Americans, including a Yemeni employee of the American embassy in Sanaa who was murdered in 2012. "Because of leadership and coordination challenges within the Yemeni government, key recipients of U.S. security assistance made limited use of this assistance until recently to combat [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in support of the U.S. strategic goal of improving Yemen’s security," the March 2013 report found.

In that way, Yemen isn’t unlike other countries — Iraq and Afghanistan to name but two — in which the United States has struggled to keep pace with the influx of billions of dollars of assistance over the years only to come up short in terms of accounting for it all. And in both cases, the United States had thousands of military and civilian personnel working in the country. Not so in Yemen.

"We need to remember that we have done at least as badly in planning and managing aid as the worst recipient country has done in using it," said Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Nonetheless, a variety of programs aim to directly achieve American security objectives in Yemen. During 2012, for instance, the Pentagon spent about $14 million on a single U.S. Special Operations Forces counterterrorism enhancement program in which a limited number of American military personnel provided training and equipment — from small arms and ammo to radios to rigid hull inflatable boats to night vision goggles to navigational systems — to Yemen’s counterterrorists.  Another program, referred to in Pentagon briefing papers as the "Fixed-Wing Capability Program," spends about $23 million "by providing equipment and training to improve the operational reach and reaction time of Yemen’s CT forces," including two short take-off and landing aircraft. The United States spends another $75 million on building the counterterrorism unit of Yemen’s Central Security Forces.

During 2013, the Pentagon spent nearly $50 million on what’s called an "integrated border and maritime security" program to help the Yemenis be more effective with aerial surveillance and ground mobility, according to a defense official. That helped the Yemenis build up the capacity to monitor threats along the country’s nearly 1,200 mile coastline. The program includes 12 short take-off and landing aircraft, each with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as flight and maintenance crews.

The United States has spent other money on Yemen, including $24 million the Coast Guard spent to build two 87-foot coastal patrol boats, and another $11 million for about 340 F-350 Ford pickup trucks, according to publicly-available contracting data. Another $27 million was spent for a contract with Bell Helicopter for four Huey II helicopters within the last three years.

Two years ago, the polling firm Gallup, Inc. was paid more than $280,000 for a "Yemen Assessment Survey." Around the same time, Yemen was part of a major contract to provide crew-served weapons, gun mounts, and stands for .50 caliber weapons. Last year, the Army paid $3 million to Harris Corporation for radios for the Yemenis, and the Navy paid $5.4 million for aircraft engines and spare parts for CASA 235 transport planes. Also last year, the Army paid $1.9 million for tactical UAVs in both Kenya and in Yemen.

Meanwhile, there are few American boots on the ground — few that the U.S. publicly acknowledges, at least. America admits to placing about three dozen or so U.S. Special Forces trainers in Yemen. And there is currently a Marine security force detachment at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, as well as the Marine embassy security guard contingent typically assigned to U.S. embassies around the world. (Additional forces, from America’s elite Joint Special Operations Command, are scattered in small units throughout the country.)

But the troops and gear inside Yemen are, in some ways, the least significant component of the campaign against al Qaeda there. From the north, American drones take off from a secret airfield deep in the Saudi desert — and strike at targets inside Yemen. From the south, eight more Predators and eight F-15E fighters fly missions from a rapidly-expanding base in Djibouti; more than 3,200 U.S. troops and civilians are stationed there, along with the warplanes. A $1.4 billion construction project could add space for hundreds more. Additional bases have been spotted in Ethiopia and the Seychelles.

Last week, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, where Hagel praised Hadi for being one of America’s  "key partners" and thanked him for "the continued cooperation on mutual security assistance issues," according to a Pentagon readout of the meeting.

Also this week, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf characterized the U.S.-Yemeni relationship, particularly with regard to counterterrorism efforts, as "very close."