- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The White House’s top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, has hand-delivered a letter from President Obama to the president of Yemen, highlighting U.S. concerns over al Qaeda’s recent expansion in the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.

In the letter, which was delivered Sunday, Mr. Obama sought to coordinate terrorism fighting efforts while offering the impoverished Arab nation additional U.S. aid, said U.S. and Yemeni officials who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were discussing private diplomatic communications.

The U.S. official said Mr. Brennan met Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the first stop of a tour of the Middle East and South Asia.

“There was a letter from the president to discuss cooperation against al Qaeda and other issues of mutual concern,” the official said.

The Yemeni government’s news agency Saba released excerpts from the letter Tuesday.

“Yemen’s security is vital to the security of the United States and the region, and America will adopt an initiative to help Yemen,” Mr. Obama reportedly told the Yemeni leader.

Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, is considered crucial to security in the region because instability there can quickly affect neighboring Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Al Qaeda recently consolidated its operations in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in a single organization calling itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen.

The group has taken advantage of tribal and religious affiliations to establish safe havens for fugitive militants in Yemen’s largely ungoverned tribal regions.

The organization claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination last month of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a deputy interior minister and the man in charge of counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia. The prince was lightly injured.

Christopher Boucek, an expert on Yemen with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr. Obama’s outreach is important because it reaffirms a U.S. desire to see Yemen remain unified and stable.

“While security and counterterrorism will continue to be a first order priority, helping Yemen with its other economic and demographic challenges is essential in order to improve Yemeni stability,” Mr. Boucek said.

In addition to al Qaeda, Yemen’s government is threatened by a Shi’ite insurgency in the north and separatist pressures in parts of the south.

A Yemeni official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said a lack of resources has limited the nation’s ability to establish control over Yemen’s highly permeable coastal and land borders.

“We appreciate the Obama administration’s initiatives to support and assist Yemen’s security challenges,” said the official, who had knowledge of the meetings. “Before al Qaeda ever became a U.S. national security threat, it was always a direct threat to Yemens national interests.

“We are not asking the U.S. to throw money at the problem. What we want is a long-term partnership with the commitment to help our ailing economy. Al Qaeda’s regional strategy is evolving from sporadic attacks to more tactical operations,” the Yemeni official said.

Yemen is the birthplace of bin Laden’s father. Nearly a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it was the scene of the suicide attack on the USS Cole, in which 17 Americans lost their lives as the ship docked to refuel.

The Yemeni official said Mr. Obama offered in the letter “that the United States would present an initiative to support Yemen to face all its development obstacles and enhance efforts of reforms through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB) and donors as well as states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

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