The operations reportedly were approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago and involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command.
U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops, The Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing unnamed senior administration officials.
Yemeni troops in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, sources told the newspaper.
The operations were approved by President Barack Obama and begun six weeks ago and involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command.
A Yemeni official told the Associated Press Tuesday that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been participating in joint operations for some time with Yemeni troops, and the two countries are currently in discussions to build a new aviation unit to help bolster Yemen’s counterterrorism forces.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, said that while the intelligence sharing has been critical, the Yemen military badly needs helicopters for its counterterrorism operations.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but provide intelligence, surveillance, planning and other weapons assistance.
As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-Yemeni Islamic cleric, was thought to be meeting with other regional Al Qaeda leaders. He was not the focus of the strike and was not killed.
Al-Awlaki has been connected with the alleged perpetrators of two recent attacks on American soil: the Nov. 5 shooting rampage at the Fort Hood, Texas, army base and the Christmas airliner bombing attempt.
The broad outlines of the U.S. involvement in Yemen have been reported by the Associated Press and others, but the extent and nature of the operations have not.
A key U.S. complaint is that Yemen’s pursuit of Al Qaeda insurgents inside the country has been fitful at best. The low point was the deadly October 2000 Al Qaeda attack on the Navy destroyer USS Cole in Yemen’s Aden harbor that killed 17 American sailors.
The terror incubator in Yemen, birthplace of the Christmas Day airliner attack, is forcing the U.S. and allies to pour millions of dollars into a shaky government that officials suspect won’t spend the money wisely and isn’t fully committed to the battle against Al Qaeda.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other world leaders meet in London on Wednesday to hash out a plan. Efforts to stabilize the impoverished nation, where the government is battling Al Qaeda strongholds with American help, are suddenly urgent after years of faltering.
“Clearly December 25th had an electrifying impact,” said Daniel Benjamin, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. The failed attempt to bring down the Detroit-bound airliner by a Nigerian tied to Yemen’s radicals made “many members of the international community think that this was a time to get past the excuses and get back to work.”
U.S. officials are uneasy, however, about Yemen’s government. President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s army has only sporadically pursued the growing Al Qaeda threat in Yemen’s vast tribal territory. The United States wants its aid to be closely monitored, and tied to economic and political reforms.
American worries about Yemen’s commitment heightened last year after several Yemeni detainees who had been released from Guantanamo Bay prison resurfaced as leaders of the country’s growing Al Qaeda faction.
At the same time, the Yemeni government can be undermined by appearing too close to the Americans. The Yemeni people are virulently anti-Israel, and by extension anti-American. Sensitive to that concern, U.S. officials have played down the Pentagon’s efforts to provide intelligence and other assistance to the Yemeni military.
The effort, Benjamin acknowledged, will have to overcome a history of failed commitments on all sides.
“The international community made a number of commitments to Yemen and they haven’t always been delivered, and Yemenis, as we know, have also sometimes made commitments and haven’t always followed through,” he said. “The important thing is that the (Yemeni) government’s doing the right thing now.”
U.S. officials say they want to combine a deeper involvement with the Yemenis on the counterterrorism front with programs designed to alleviate poverty, illiteracy and rapid population growth.
Much like the effort with Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, the U.S. military has boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces, and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones, U.S. officials and analysts have told The Associated Press. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of the operations, say the support comes at the request of Yemen.
The Yemeni government largely defeated Al Qaeda forces in 2003, but the terror group was able to rebound more as the government turned its focus to flare-ups by other insurgents. Then, early last year, Al Qaeda groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s northern neighbor, merged, and turned their efforts toward Islamic jihad beyond those countries’ borders.
In the wake of the Christmas attack, Yemen’s military has struck repeatedly at Al Qaeda sites. On Tuesday, a Yemeni security official said that 43 people, including several foreigners, are being interrogated there for links to the failed attempt to blow up the Detroit-bound airliner.
Last week, after a meeting in Washington with Clinton, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi stressed “our commitment to continue the fight against terrorism and against radicalization.”
Clinton praised Yemen’s recent military actions against the Al Qaeda faction there but insisted that extremism could not be rooted out without a focus on economic development, something Saleh has yet to push to U.S. satisfaction.
“Our relationship cannot be just about the terrorists,” she said. “As critical as that is to our security and our future … the best way to really get at some of these underlying problems that exist is through an effective development strategy.”
The Yemeni foreign minister praised the American effort, saying that “with the new administration, we have seen a greater understanding to the challenges faced by Yemen and the willingness to help Yemen.”
The U.S. currently has a three-year, $121 million development and economic assistance program with Yemen. Separately, it is providing nearly $70 million in military aid this year.
Those numbers are likely to increase, but throughout the past decade, Washington’s annual assistance to Yemen hovered in the low $20- to $25-million range.
“Yemen is often overlooked by U.S. policy makers,” said Jeremy Sharp, author of a Congressional Research Service report on the country. He described the U.S.-Yemeni relationship as “tepid” with a lack of strong military-to-military ties, commerce and cross-cultural exchanges.
The push for closer ties are also tempered by concerns about Saleh’s rule, which has been punctuated by severe disagreements over how Yemen has handled terror suspects, including several detainees implicated in the Cole bombing and detainees released from Guantanamo Bay.
Terrorists from both of those groups have reportedly become leaders of the new Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.
But the Yemeni government’s response to the terror threat was “basically catch-and-release and that needs to change,” said one U.S. official familiar with counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen. “We need to have confidence that the bad guys are locked up.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.