- Associated Press - Sunday, October 17, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen (AP) — 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 American 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.

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 Detroit. 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.

About 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.

American officials have been careful not to show any sign of friction. “We believe that abilities of the Yemeni security system are constantly increasing,” the State Department’s No. 3 diplomat, William Burns, told reporters after meeting with Mr. Saleh last week.

Still, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi recently brought one dispute out into the open, saying San’a had put a stop to American warplanes or drones carrying out strikes against al Qaeda targets, a tactic that Washington has relied on against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.

In December, three airstrikes were carried out against purported al Qaeda targets in two provinces and outside San’a. At least six al Qaeda militants are thought to have been killed in those strikes, along with more than 40 civilians. In a Sept. 30 interview with the Arab daily Al-Hayat, Mr. al-Qirbi acknowledged the assaults were carried out by U.S. aircraft.

“American strikes have ceased since December because the Yemeni government insisted that these strikes don’t yield any results,” he said.

American officials have refused to confirm that U.S. planes carried out the strikes. U.S. officials contacted this past week for further comment also declined to speak.

Yemen at first said its warplanes carried out the strikes to avoid an angry public backlash, according to Yemeni officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the subject.

Visible signs of the American counterterror campaign here are few. Deep in the country of 23 million people, villagers report the round-the-clock sound of drones, presumed to be American craft watching militants. Dozens of informers have been recruited in recent months to keep U.S. counterterrorism officials posted on the militants’ movements and chatter, Yemeni security officials say. They also say the Yemenis submit to their U.S. counterparts daily progress reports on efforts to track down Mr. al-Awlaki.

With U.S. airstrikes off the table — and American officials saying there is no intention for U.S. troops to fight on the ground — it is up to Yemen’s police and military to wage the battle. But their ability to operate is deeply hampered.

Al Qaeda fighters — estimated to number around 300 — have built up strongholds in the provinces of Shabwa, Abyan, Jouf and Marib, regions of daunting mountain ranges where central authority has nearly no presence. At least 70 percent of Shabwa, for example, is a no-go area for security forces, leaving most under the control of armed tribesmen who offer protection to al Qaeda militants, Yemeni security officials say.

Yemen and Washington also disagree on how much of a real threat al Qaeda presents. Yemeni lawmakers and tribal chiefs often maintain that the danger is a myth propagated by Washington to impose its control over the country — or by the San’a government to give it an excuse to strike its domestic enemies.

The United States sees Mr. al-Awlaki as the most notorious English-speaking advocate of terrorism directed at America, with a dangerously strong appeal to Muslims in the West, and Washington has put him on a list of militants to kill or capture. U.S. investigators say that e-mails link him to Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of last year’s killings at Fort Hood, Texas, and that he helped prepare Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused in the Christmas bombing attempt of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

But in Yemen — Mr. al-Awlaki’s ancestral homeland — only a few people have heard of him. Those who have say they cannot understand what the fuss is all about. And if he is captured, he will not be extradited to the United States because Yemen’s constitution forbids it, Mr. al-Qirbi has said.

“I believe his role and importance are grossly exaggerated,” Shabwa Gov. Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi told AP. “I don’t think that what the Americans are saying about him is totally baseless, but I am confident that it is exaggerated.”

More broadly, the government is also reluctant to wage an all-out fight because of Mr. Saleh’s alliances with militant Islamic groups, including jihadi veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya and Iraq. He has let their influence grow as part of an elaborate divide-and-rule game that has helped him stay in power.

In a sign of his accommodation with them, Mr. Saleh in late September named powerful Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani — considered by Washington “a specially designated global terrorist” — as the “religious overseer” of the ruling party’s ongoing negotiations with opposition parties over electoral reform.

Sheik al-Zindani, who is thought by the United States to be a one-time spiritual mentor of Osama bin Laden, has warned that the U.S.-backed fight against al Qaeda could lead to “foreign occupation” of Yemen.

“The regime has from the start depended on a tripod of military, religious and tribal bases,” prominent analyst Abdel-Ghani al-Iryani said. “It continues to think to this day that it’s in control of the situation, but I personally think they no longer can.”

Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj contributed to this report.

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