- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 3, 2010

UPDATED:

President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser said Sunday that an active threat from al Qaeda led the United States to close its embassy in Yemen, where an al Qaeda affiliate apparently trained and armed the man accused in the Christmas Day plot against a U.S. airliner.

Despite the threat, the United States does not plan to open a new front in Yemen in the global fight against terrorism, said the aide, John Brennan.

“It just demonstrates that al Qaeda is determined to carry out these attacks, and we’re determined to thwart those attacks,” he said, making the rounds of four Sunday television talk shows as the president finished his holiday vacation in Hawaii and prepared for a Tuesday meeting at the White House about the airliner plot.

“We’re determined to destroy al Qaeda, whether it’s in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen, and we will get there.”

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Britain also shuttered its embassy in the Yemeni capital, San’a, citing security reasons.

“We’re not going to take any chances” with the lives of American diplomats and others at the embassy in Yemen’s capital, Mr. Brennan said. “There are indications al Qaeda is planning to carry out an attack against a target inside of San’a, possibly our embassy.”

Mr. Brennan said the threat against Americans and Westerners would not ease until Yemen’s government got a better handle on the threat from terrorists inside the country. He estimated there are several hundred members of al Qaeda in Yemen. “We are very concerned about al Qaeda’s continued growth there,” Mr. Brennan said.

He said recent events are showing a “culmination of the effort here of al Qaeda to carry out these attacks. We stop a lot of these attacks and a lot of these plans long before they get to the execution phase, but what is clear is that … they are determined to continue pressing and continuing their attempts.”

“We keep thwarting their attacks, but they keep pressing,” Mr. Brennan said, from early appearances on “Fox News Sunday,” CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week.”

Mr. Obama said Saturday that an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen apparently ordered the airliner plot, training and arming the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused in the failed bombing.

“This is not the first time this group has targeted us,” Mr. Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address, reporting on findings of an administration review into how intelligence agencies failed to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

The president emphasized that the United States would continue its partnerships with friendly countries — citing Yemen, in particular — to fight terrorists and extremist groups. The United States plans to more than double its counterterrorism aid to the impoverished, fragmented Arab nation in the coming year to support Yemen’s campaign against al Qaeda.

“We’ve been investing in Yemen for many, many months now, and we’re working very closely not just with the Yemenis but with our international partners — with the British, with the Saudis and others — to make sure we provide the Yemeni government with the wherewithal to carry out this fight against al Qaeda” Mr. Brennan said. “So it’s not a new front. It’s one that we’ve known about. It’s one that we’ve been able to make tremendous progress and gains.”

Officials have said Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had drifted into extremism in the al Qaeda hotbed of Yemen. Mr. Abdulmutallab’s threat was only partially digested by the U.S. security apparatus and not linked with a visa history showing the young man could fly to the United States.

“We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies. It appears that he joined an affiliate of al Qaeda, and that this group — al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America,” Mr. Obama said in his address.

Mr. Obama noted that in recent years the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has bombed government facilities there as well as Western hotels, restaurants and embassies. An attack on the U.S. Embassy in 2008 killed one American.

“So, as president, I’ve made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government — training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al-Qaida terrorists,” he said.

The United States provided Yemen $67 million in training and support under the Pentagon’s counterterrorism program last year. Only Pakistan got more, with some $112 million.

Mr. Obama said the money had been well spent: “Training camps have been struck, leaders eliminated, plots disrupted. And all those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas must know — you too will be held to account.”

The U.S. general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan told reporters in Baghdad on Friday that U.S. counterterrorism aid to Yemen would more than double in the year ahead. Gen. David Petraeus said Yemen was struggling to overcome many challenges, including declining oil revenues and an insurgency making full use of the country’s rugged terrain.

Mr. Petraeus arrived in Yemen on Saturday and met with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Yemeni government official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Security officials in Yemen said Saturday the government deployed several hundred extra troops to two mountainous eastern provinces that are al Qaeda’s main strongholds in the country and where Mr. Abdulmutallab may have visited.

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