- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Pentagon is being urged to move its counterterrorism operations from Yemen across the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti should the government in Sanaa fall.

Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican and ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds military base construction, said in an interview, “I think the administration should be actively considering a Plan B for Yemen.”

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters en route to Cairo that the United States had not done any “post-Saleh planning,” a reference to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen is the main redoubt of the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and political instability is raising fears that the group will expand its power.

Mr. Kirk said this plan should be aimed at establishing a base of operations in Djibouti to continue the military’s efforts to target AQAP should Mr. Saleh step down or be ousted from power.

Mr. Saleh said Thursday that he would defend his office with “all possible means” despite a series of high-level defections from his military amid mass protests in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. Other reports from the country, however, stated that Mr. Saleh is brokering a plan to step down from power in negotiations with one of the breakaway generals, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.

Diplomatic cables disclosed late last year by the website WikiLeaks recounted a meeting between Mr. Saleh and Gen. David H. Petraeus, at the time commander of the U.S. Central Command, discussing U.S. drone strikes against AQAP targets in his country.

AQAP controls territory in northern Yemen and is widely considered the most dangerous of al Qaeda’s affiliates. In 2009, the U.S.-born AQAP ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an English-speaking Nigerian national who is charged with trying to detonate a bomb aboard a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.

After the failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009, the Obama administration increased the pace of drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations inside Yemen.

“We will probably have to fall back to another country - for example, Djibouti - to do more counterterrorism ops,” Mr. Kirk said. “It will likely have to do more to take on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” said Mr. Kirk, a reserve Navy intelligence officer who plans to visit Djibouti next month.

Mr. Gates was asked during a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday whether the United States still supports Mr. Saleh or whether it is time for him to step down.

“I don’t think it’s my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen,” he said. “We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. We consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of al Qaeda right now. And so, instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation.”

Other U.S. officials have said that Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is one base that is being considered for counterterrorism operations if a new government in Yemen discontinues or scales back its counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.

Other bases in Iraq and Kuwait could be used for launching counterterrorism strikes into Yemen, but Camp Lemonnier is geographically closer to many targets.

Frances F. Townsend, who was a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said Djibouti would be a good location for a base. “We are going to have to rely more on Camp Lemonnier, but we are also going to have to be attuned to the political difficulties of relying more on the host nation Djibouti than we do now,” she said.

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