Tuesday, January 20, 2015
US officials say their efforts to contain al-Qaida in Yemen are hurt by rebel push in capital…
The violent push Tuesday by Houthi rebels against the American-backed government in Yemen is undermining military and intelligence operations against al-Qaida’s Yemen-based affiliate, which made its reach felt in this month’s deadly Paris attacks, U.S. officials say.
President Barack Obama cited Yemen as a terrorism success story in a September speech outlining his strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which involves targeted U.S. strikes on militants with the cooperation of a friendly ground force. Obama called it an approach “that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
But 10 days after the president uttered those words, the Iran-backed Houthi militia swept into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, seizing a share of power. On Tuesday, those same rebels seized the presidential palace and shelled the president’s residence, leading Yemeni officials to warn of a coup.
“The government is hanging by a thread,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “This has really scrambled our counterterrorism strategy there and it gives al-Qaida a great new opportunity.”
While U.S. officials say the Houthis haven’t taken total control, they acknowledge that the government run by their ally, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is more focused now on preserving its power than on running operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Penninsula. The U.S. considers AQAP the most deadly terrorist threat because of its focus on attacking Western aviation. Two U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted discussing intelligence assessments.
The U.S. embassy in Yemen has long been operating on reduced American staff, but there are an estimated 800 State Department personnel, American citizens and designated foreign nationals in Yemen, plus several dozen Marines guarding the embassy and an unspecified number of special operations forces and CIA officers.
U.S. officials are concerned that the ascendancy of the Shiite Houthis could fuel support for al-Qaida, a Sunni movement that has links to some of Yemen’s tribes.
“The sectarian dynamic is likely to become far more problematic, and we learned in Iraq, that’s a recipe for disaster,” Schiff said.
For several years, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command have run parallel targeted killing programs in Yemen. There were 23 U.S. drone strikes in Yemen last year and 23 the year before, according to Long War Journal, which tracks the strikes based on local media reports. U.S. special operations forces attempted a hostage rescue in Yemen in April.