THE sophistication of the apparent attempt to deliver explosive-laden parcels to the US casts renewed attention on al-Qa’ida’s Yemen affiliate.
The al-Qa’ida branch has drawn Yemen’s government, with US backing, into an increasingly bloody ground war.
Some US officials see this al-Qa’ida branch, known as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, as a critical threat to US security — on par with the one from Osama bin Laden’s group, presumed to be operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Al-Qa’ida members in Yemen claimed responsibility for the 2000 bombing of the US warship Cole in the southern port of Aden that killed 17 sailors, and for the failed attempt to bomb a US-bound airliner last Christmas. US officials also say American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who they accuse of being a top member of the Arabian group, had links to the army major who allegedly shot and killed 13 people at Food Hood in Texas last year.
In the past year, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salah has announced a renewed determination to deny the terrorist group a base in Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and a recruiting zone for al-Qa’ida since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Yemen’s foreign ministry recently said it believes the group now numbers about 400 militants.
Yemeni and US forces have been trying to shave down the Yemen branch’s reach with a wide-scale local military campaign this northern summer across two mountainous provinces in the country’s south, where the group has long had sanctuary living among Yemen’s tribes.
Local officials and tribal leaders there say that US drone aircraft are aiding Yemeni forces in their hunt for suspected terror cells, acting in concert with Yemen’s own massive air and ground raids.
Sections of Abyan province are now war zones, cut off from the rest of the country. Local residents of Mudiya, one of the towns where the Yemeni military has waged almost daily running gun battles with al-Qa’ida fighters, say US drones are flying overhead throughout most of the day, while Yemeni jet fighters bomb suspected al-Qa’ida safe houses.
US military officials have also been involved in training Yemeni counter-terrorism units. The US hasn’t specified the number of advisers or discussed other activities publicly.
President Barack Obama said today the US would “continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders”.
The militants, meanwhile, have stepped up their attempts against the government. In mid-September, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula released a statement listing 54 south Yemen officials as assassination targets. “Despite the pain and the severity of the bombing and killing in this year, we have vanquished the crusader enemy and their agents,” the statement read.
The group’s guerrilla-style tactics have been ruthlessly efficient against the poorly trained Yemeni military forces on the ground, says Mudiyah’s mayor, Mohammed Al Nakhai. Several of the men on the September list have since been killed in drive-by shootings and ambushes.
Local officials also report that military dragnets have failed to ensnare many of the targeted fighters, including the cleric Mr Awlaki. Yemeni officials say they don’t know Mr Awlaki’s whereabouts. Diplomats in San’a privately say they believe that the Yemenis haven’t made his capture a priority in their counter-terrorism campaign.
The Yemeni military hasn’t released statistics of the numbers of militants it says has been killed in the southern campaign.
Far from those battles, residents of the capital also feel insecure. Earlier this month, a suspected al-Qa’ida gunman tried to assassinate a British diplomat. This northern summer in Aden, the country’s second-largest city, al-Qa’ida gunmen attacked in broad daylight the provincial headquarters of Yemen’s national security agency, killing several civilians.
Many foreigners and foreign companies have scaled back their activities. Earlier this month, German airline Lufthansa suspended its service to San’a, and the French Embassy closed the city’s French-language school until further notice.
Aden and the war-gripped Abyan province are scheduled to host next month’s Gulf 20 soccer tournament, in which all the Arab Gulf states are expected to compete despite widespread unease among officials in the region about Yemen’s tenuous security.
Attacks by suspected al-Qa’ida members have occurred almost daily over the last two weeks in Abyan, including one on Thursday at the home of the provincial intelligence chief in the provincial capital, Zinzibar.
The Yemeni president says he is sending 30,000 troops to help keep security during the soccer tournament.