The United States is struggling to contain al Qaeda’s formidable terror cell in Yemen, despite a devastating aerial campaign coupled with an extended American military presence on the ground, according to the White House’s top counterterrorism official.
The battle against the jihadi terror cell, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has been overshadowed by the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, National Counterterrorism Center chief Nick Rasmussen said Wednesday.
The Yemen group “is still something we find ourselves focused on,” Mr. Rasmussen said during a counterterrorism symposium hosted in Washington, D.C. by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA).
But dislodging the terror cell, which is widely seen al Qaeda’s best-financed and most-dangerous faction, has been a challenge that American and allied intelligence agencies have yet to solve.
U.S. military and intelligence officials are “struggling to keep up” with the group’s activities in the region, as well as their intent to strike at targets in the West, Mr. Rassmussen said. The biggest hurdle facing the American intelligence officials is their lack of visibility into the war-torn nation.
Aside from the internal threat posed by al Qaeda, the country has been wracked by civil war and unrest since Houthi rebels, a Sunni separatist sect in the country, forced former President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power in 2015. Since then government factions loyal to the deposed Hadi regime, backed by several Gulf states, have been battling Houthi forces for control.
Both sides have also been targeted by al Qaeda operatives in the country, in an attempt to solidify their position in Yemen, consolidating near the southern port city of Aden and surrounding areas within the Hadhramaut region, located 400 miles southeast of the country’s capitol of Sana’a.
U.S. forces, whose counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda’s Yemen group had the backing of the former Hadi regime, were forces to curtail that mission in the wake of the regime’s collapse.
American diplomats also shuttered their embassy in the country as a result of the civil war.
That loss of an American presence in Yemen has essentially left American intelligence agencies blind in the country, with precious few options to monitor al Qaeda’s activities on the ground, Mr. Rasmussen said.
Attempts to track al Qaeda’s movements in Yemen remotely via unmanned surveillance aircraft and satellites have provide an adequate picture of the group’s operations, he said. Information gleaned from such assets have led to several successful strikes against the Yemen cell.
American warplanes executed a recent round of airstrikes in the country beginning on Aug. 24, officials from U.S. Central Command said Tuesday. Command officials claim a total of 13 al Qaeda operatives were killed during the three strikes carried out over the 11-day period in Yemen.
In May, U.S. drones and warplanes have carried out four strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen over two weeks, ending with 10 confirmed kills, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said at the time.
But those assets pale in comparison to having spies on the ground, reporting on the Yemen group, either under the cover of the now-defunct U.S. Embassy or other means of diplomatic or military protection, Mr. Rasmussen added.
In an attempt to close that gap, Pentagon leaders in June decided to extend the deployment of a small special-operations team in the country, which had been deployed to back government forces battling al Qaeda in April.
The Defense Department first acknowledged the team’s deployment in May, where they played an integral role in the operation to retake the coastal town of Mukalla in Hadramawt.
Providing intelligence support to Saudi and UAE commanders, the team also coordinated aerial surveillance operations and assisted local commanders in mission planning for the Mukalla offensive at the time.