- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Obama administration fears al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen will gain access to strategic waters in the Gulf of Aden, based on recent gains by extremist rebels in the southwest part of the Arabian state.

“It is a matter of great concern that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sees this opportunity to establish a territorial hold on this area in Zinjibar,” a town in southwest Yemen, Daniel Benjamin, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, told a Senate panel Tuesday.

“It is something that we are watching with great concern,” he said. “Obviously, when they have a safer haven in which to operate, we are worried that they threaten the city of Aden to some extent, and, if they are able to get access to the sea, that presents other concerns.”

Aden is Yemen’s main port and the site of al Qaeda’s 2000 bombing of the guided-missile warship USS Cole that killed 17 sailors and wounded 39. If al Qaeda is able to hold the port city, it would give the group the potential to import sophisticated weaponry, and also serve as a base to support other al Qaeda affiliates in the region, such as al-Shabab in Somalia.

Mr. Benjamin said in an interview with The Washington Times after the hearing that he thought it would be “extremely difficult” for al Qaeda or other rebels to take and hold Aden.

Janet Sanderson, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said at the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that militant foes of the central Yemeni government in Sanaa have been able to take advantage of the government’s emphasis on counterterrorism operations in the cities.

“What we have seen as a result of the focus of the government on the security situation in the large cities is a growing space in which extremists have been able to operate,” she said.

“There are reports that Islamic militants, among them including some members of al Qaeda, have gone in and taken control of the city of Zinjibar. There are reports that smaller cities in that area have been taken over by militants. We do know the revolutionary guard in the Zinjibar garrison is under siege.”

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been linked to the Dec. 25, 2009, attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. One of that group’s leaders, Anwar al-Awlaki, is a U.S. citizen who has emerged as al Qaeda’s most effective English-language recruiter.

In the past six months, the political situation in Yemen has deteriorated. In June, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was nearly killed in an assassination attempt. He is being treated in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Saleh’s vice president and Yemen’s interim leader, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, has said that his government has no control five of Yemen’s 21 provinces. In February, the United States had to suspend its counterterrorism assistance to Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation.

The province of Abyan, where Zinjibar is located, has experienced heavy clashes in recent months. On Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported that an al Qaeda-affiliated leader in the province, Hassan Basonbol, was killed in fighting with security forces.

Despite the state of near civil war in the country, U.S. officials Tuesday said Yemen’s citizens do not hate America in the same numbers as Pakistanis do, according to recent polls.

Christa Capozzola, a deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development said. “In general USAID’s experience is that the reception of Americans and our aid is positive.”