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Washington to Play Bigger Role in Yemen Terror Fight

The United States has spent years combining drone strikes with raids by American-trained Yemeni forces. With Yemen in disarray, Washington will have to do more terrorist hunting on its own.

Yemeni gunmen loyal to the Shiite Houthi movement man a checkpoint in Sanaa on October 30, 2014. Yemen has fallen deeper into turmoil since an uprising ousted strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 after a year of unrest, with rivals, including the Huthi rebels and Al-Qaeda, battling each other. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is continuing airstrikes against al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen while facing questions about how to carry on such operations without a trusted partner on the ground following the collapse of the country’s fragile, pro-Western government.

The U.S. strategy until now has been centered on CIA drone strikes on al Qaeda targets and ground raids by Yemeni special forces ferried around the country aboard American aircraft. That two-pronged approach is now in doubt in the immediate aftermath of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s resignation Jan. 22 after Houthi rebels seeking greater political power effectively seized control of the capital, Sanaa.

After years of close cooperation with elite, U.S.-trained units of Yemeni special forces, the United States may now find it has to carry out more missions on its own. In practice, that will likely mean an acceleration of the covert effort to track and kill individual militants using armed drones. In 2014 alone, the United States carried out at least 23 such strikes, according to The Long War Journal. That was just one less than was carried out in Pakistan, long the central battlefront in the American drone war against militants around the world.

On Monday, Jan. 26, Washington sent an emphatic signal that the counterterrorism campaign in Yemen would continue when a CIA drone strike killed two suspected militants belonging to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni-based group that claimed to have orchestrated this month’s attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo. The strike was the first since Hadi left office.

With airstrikes likely to continue, the White House also faces the difficult policy choice of whether, and how, to cooperate with the Houthis — who are widely seen as an Iranian proxy force — in the fight against AQAP. Even if the administration decided to roll the dice and work with the group, the Houthis, while a tough fighting force, lack the high-end skills necessary for going after elusive terrorism suspects hiding in the deserts of Yemen. That means the United States — which has suspended consular services at its embassy in Sanaa — will have to do more of the hard work on its own.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said at a news briefing Monday that the White House hopes to help bring about a political solution to the crisis in Yemen that would allow Washington to “maintain the type of cooperation we’ve had with Yemen and its security forces in recent years.”

Rhodes stressed, though, that the United States has “significant ability to develop intelligence and to try to track down terrorist targets” built up over the years that “draws on cooperation with Yemen and also our own intelligence assets.”

President Barack Obama’s administration has held up its campaign against AQAP in Yemen as a “model” of how the United States should battle terrorist groups like the Islamic State in other parts of the Middle East: drone strikes against militants carried out by the CIA with the help of local ground forces trained by U.S. Special Forces and occasional raids carried out by American special operations troops themselves. Obama and his top aides are expressing confidence that the approach can continue to work in Yemen, but some counterterrorism and intelligence officials acknowledge that the strategy will be harder to put in practice without being able to count on assistance from Yemeni special forces and intelligence operatives.

“Our ability to operate effectively in Yemen … is significantly helped by a partner on the ground that is reliable and committed to the things that we’re committed to,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official. The Hadi government, the official said, had proved to be “a very solid partner … and right now that partner’s imperiled.”

As a result, the official said, “the outlook for counterterrorism cooperation isn’t great.”

The White House also faces the tough question of “whether the U.S. should be partnering with the Houthis if in fact they become the de facto force on the ground,” said Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism and intelligence analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A Jan. 22 article published by the website Al-Monitor quoted Michael Vickers, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence, as saying that the United States and the Houthis share a common enemy in al Qaeda, which is a Sunni militant group that sees the Houthis as apostates.

“The Houthis are anti al Qaeda, and we’ve been able to continue some of our counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the past months,” Vickers said, according to Al-Monitor. Questioned if that included lines of intelligence to the Houthis, Vickers said, “That’s a safe assumption,” the news website reported.

Vickers in an email said his comments to Al-Monitor were incorrect.

“The U.S. has a well-established, collaborative counterterrorism partnership with the Yemeni government, which includes operations, training and intelligence agreements to counter the shared threat we face from AQAP,” Vickers said. “The security situation in Yemen remains very fluid; we are watching the situation very closely.”

“We do not have an intelligence sharing agreement with the Houthis. Intelligence sharing requires formal agreements, similar to the one between the U.S. and Yemeni government,” he said.

Any delay or reduction in the American counterterrorism push in Yemen would be a major blow to the United States, given the threat posed by AQAP, which is known to employ some of the world’s most dangerous and highly skilled bomb-makers, including those specializing in building nonmetallic bombs that would be difficult for metal detectors to spot.

AQAP has attempted at least three attacks on the U.S. homeland, but none has been successful. The most famous was the failed attack against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set off explosives sewn into his underwear.

While unsuccessful, that attack highlighted the bomb-making prowess of Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi national and AQAP leader whose expertise in nonmetallic explosives has spooked Western intelligence officials who fear his skills could be shared with other terrorist groups.

AQAP has successfully employed suicide bombers in Yemen, including in an attack that killed at least 37 people outside a police academy in Sanaa on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack. But so far, its plans for more spectacular explosions against Western targets have failed.

The Houthis are a harder group to judge. In February 2014, Houthis demanding greater autonomy attacked tribal forces backing Hadi in the country’s Amran province to protest a political-transition plan arranged by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Yemeni officials and analysts have long suspected that Iran was supporting the Houthis in an attempt to undermine Saudi Arabia’s influence in Yemen.

In a June 2013 War Powers letter to Congress, Obama noted that U.S. and Yemeni officials had intercepted a vessel suspected of smuggling contraband into Yemen. On searching the vessel, U.S. and Yemeni officials found conventional weapons and explosives of Iranian origin concealed in the ship. The weapons were almost certainly bound for the Houthis, who sharply escalated their campaign against Hadi’s administration in 2014, resulting in the collapse of his government this year.

U.S. intelligence officials have been under fire for more than year, with critics bashing American spooks for failing to spot the rise of the Islamic State or Russia’s lightning-fast annexation of Crimea. When it comes to Yemen, though, the eventual collapse of the Hadi administration should not have come as a surprise to the U.S. government, according to American officials familiar with the intelligence community’s assessment.

“The writing’s been on the wall for some time,” said the U.S. counterterrorism official. “Anybody who’s been following or reading the intelligence community’s products should not have been surprised by the current situation. The intelligence community has been warning about the deteriorating security situation in Yemen and the implication of that breakdown for some time.”


 Twitter: @g_ratnam
Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor

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