SANAA, Yemen – Yemeni government security experts and top rung politicians said on Friday that U.S. troops in Yemen would bolster support for Al Qaeda and denied claims that Yemen was a candidate for state failure.
“Direct interference by the U.S. will strengthen Al Qaeda,” said Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for national security and defense, referring to the terror group's Yemen-based offshoot Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “It will not make them weak.”
Yemen and the growth of Al Qaeda in its remote countryside have become a grave concern to U.S. authorities since a self-proclaimed Al Qaeda member, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab had spent more than four months in Yemen in 2009, and as much as a year here in 2004-2005. Experts say Yemen, on the verge of collapse due to two separate insurgencies, a water crisis, an oil crisis and crushing poverty, has become a safe haven for the growing AQAP organization.
In a wide-ranging press conference held in the capital, Alimi said the a Yemeni investigation had revealed that Abdulmutallab had direct contact with American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and possibly even stayed in the same house.
Awlaki is the American-born Yemeni preacher known to recruit and indoctrinate Islamic extremists. Before Nidal Hasan shot and killed 12 people in Fort Hood, Texas, early in November, he was in contact with Awlaki. After the attack, the cleric hailed the shooter as a “hero.” Al-Awlaki is wanted by both American and Yemeni authorities.
Alimi emphasized that crushing Al Qaeda was Yemen’s top priority, but even as he insisted to Western journalists that Sanaa does not want U.S. soldiers in the country, he admitted that Yemen could not fight out Al Qaeda without international assistance.
“The technology is not available to Yemen,” he said.
Last week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command in the region, told reporters in Baghdad that the U.S. planned to double its funding for Yemen security to about $140 million, according to the Washington Post. Pentagon officials later retracted this statement, saying it was too early to announce an exact figure.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve $150 million for Yemen in the coming year. But, when asked if the U.S. intended to send troops to Yemen, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said, “We’re not talking about that at this point at all,” according to the Associated Press.
Abdulmutallab was in Yemen from Aug. 4 to Dec. 7 of last year. He studied Arabic in the capital, Sanaa, until Sept. 21. He left the school, telling teachers and administrators he was going back to Nigeria. He spent the next two and a half months in Yemen, and it is still unclear where he traveled during that time.
A Yemeni investigation tracked Abdulmutallab’s movements to Shebwa, where al-Awlaki is believed to be hiding, and possibly to two other remote provinces. Tribes, untouched by the government, rule much of Shebwa. Al-Awlaki belongs to one of the leading tribes, and is thought to be hiding in the area.
The day before Christmas, and Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack, air raids targeted the area. The government claimed that more than 30 Al Qaeda militants were killed, including al-Awlaki. The cleric later surfaced, calling a Yemeni reporter to say he was alive, according to Newsweek. There were also multiple reports of civilian deaths, including women and children.
Al-Alimi also denied U.S. claims that Abdulmutallab was armed in Yemen. He said the materials that made the bomb sewn into the Abdulmutallab’s underwear were acquired in Nigeria, on his way to the U.S. on Dec. 24.
And while he did not deny that Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen, he said the would-be bomber was recruited and radicalized in the United Kingdom. “He was an extremist before he came to Yemen,” said al-Alimi.
Abdulmutallab was the president of the Islamic Society, while attending University College in London, and is widely believed to have been radicalized there.
The U.K. and the U.S. are also responsible for allowing Abdulmutallab to fall through the cracks, according to al-Alimi. Neither country shared information about the Nigerian’s extremist leanings with the Yemeni government, he said.
Muhammed Al-Anisi, the director Arabic school Abdulmutallab attended late last summer, said he obtained a student visa for Abdulmutallab with minimal scrutiny. He thought the student’s multiple-entry U.S. visa was proof that Abdulmutallab was not a potential threat.
But according to the spokesperson for the Yemeni opposition parties, Naif al-Gunas, the Yemeni government has not demonstrated the ability to fight terrorism effectively.
Anti-government forces like Al Qaeda, he said, are a result of unjust and inefficient governance. He said the armed rebellion in the north, the insurgency in the south and now the growing presence of al-Qaeda could not be stopped by government forces. “How can the producer of the problem solve the problem?” he asked GlobalPost.
He also said that Al Qaeda attacks were likely to become more frequent because of western assistance. And even if the international community is able to bolster the government enough to defeat AQAP, the organization will grow stronger in Yemen, before it gets weaker. Yemenis do not want international interference, he said, and they will grow increasingly sympathetic with anti-government organizations. “Al-Qaeda will have the people,” he said.
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