- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen | For nearly a year, the United States has waged a war against al Qaeda in Yemen, largely in deep secrecy. But the militants appear unfazed, and the fragile government of this poor Arab nation is pushing back against U.S. pressure to escalate the fight.

The regime of Yemen’s longtime leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is weak, dependent for its survival on the loyalty of unruly tribes and alliances with Muslim extremists.

Yemeni authorities also fear too harsh a fight against al Qaeda will alienate a deeply conservative Muslim population where anti-American sentiment is widespread. As a result, the main Yemeni tactic is often to negotiate with tribes to try to persuade them to hand over fugitive militants.

Yemeni officials say Washington is pressing them to be more aggressive.

“The Americans are pushing hard and the government is resisting hard,” said Yasser al-Awadi, a senior lawmaker close to Mr. Saleh, Yemen’s leader of 32 years.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is waging a quiet war against al Qaeda in Yemen. (Associated Press)
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is waging a quiet war against al ... more >

Al Qaeda militants have been building up their presence for several years in Yemen, finding refuge with tribes in the remote mountain ranges where San’a has little control.

But they made a stunning show of their international reach in December, when they allegedly plotted a failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet over the U.S.

The Obama administration branded al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a global threat, and has dramatically stepped up its alliance with Mr. Saleh’s regime to uproot it.

Around 50 elite U.S. military experts are in the country training Yemeni counterterrorism forces — a number that has doubled over the past year.

Washington is funneling some $150 million in military assistance to Yemen this year for helicopters, planes and other equipment, along with a similar amount for humanitarian and development aid. San’a says its troops are fanned out around the country, hunting for militants.

Still, there’s been little visible progress.

In recent weeks, al Qaeda gunmen have been bold enough to carry out assaults in the capital, San’a, including a failed ambush on a top British diplomat in her car. The government touted as a major success a fierce weeklong siege in September by Yemeni troops against an al Qaeda force in the provincial town of Houta, but most of the militants escaped into nearby, impenetrable mountains.

Days after that siege, the governor of the same province, Shabwa, narrowly escaped gunmen who ambushed his convoy. In nearby Abyan province, an al Qaeda campaign of assassinations that has killed dozens of police and army officers prompted authorities last month to ban motorcycles in urban areas to try to stop cycle-mounted gunmen.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda in Yemen’s top leadership remains intact, issuing a Web video last week threatening to cross into neighboring Saudi Arabia to assassinate senior security officials. “Look under your beds before you sleep, you might find one of our bombs,” the video warned Saudis, whose government is viewed by al Qaeda as not Islamic, corrupt and too close to America.

And the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric who Washington says has become a leader in the group, may have gone cold. The governor of Shabwa province, where Mr. al-Awlaki is believed to be hiding in the mountains, told the Associated Press he hasn’t been sighted in two months and cast doubt whether the cleric was still in the province.

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