SANAA, Yemen, (AP) – Yemen wants far more military aid than the U.S. has promised in the fight against escalating terrorism — billions of dollars more than Washington has in mind.
And yet Yemeni authorities have little to show for the significant Western aid that has already poured into the impoverished country.
In fact, the al-Qaeda offshoot that claimed responsibility for the failed plot to send mail bombs from Yemen to the U.S. appears more emboldened than ever. And Yemen’s government seems to feel more threatened by an increasingly restless secessionist rebellion in the south, where it has little control, than by militants linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Since the Oct. 28 discovery of the two mail bombs, U.S. officials are pressing Yemen for more and faster cooperation on intelligence-sharing and more opportunities to train Yemeni counterterrorism teams. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and the government’s authority is weak in areas outside the capital of Sanaa.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said over the weekend that the U.S. could do more to help train Yemeni forces to combat terrorists. U.S. officials told The Associated Press last week that military aid to Yemen would double to $250 million in 2011 — underscoring the growing realization of the threat al-Qaeda poses to the fragile state.
President Barack Obama called President Ali Abdullah Saleh last week to say the aid is part of a broader, more comprehensive strategy to promote security as well as economic and political development.
But Hesham Sharaf, a Yemeni deputy minister, said the proposed U.S. assistance is “nothing” compared to what Yemen needs. Government officials are talking about a two-year program to develop the armed forces that would cost around $6 billion, he said.
Yemen says it needs to develop its coast guard and acquire more than a dozen combat helicopters, satellites and equipment such as night-vision goggles and spyware.
“Technology like satellites should be in Yemen’s hands, not images handed down to us,” Sharaf said. “We must have special Yemeni forces trained to use combat helicopters, not Americans. If they (Americans) go on the ground, people will criticize us and say we are weak.”
As part of its aid, the U.S. provides equipment and training to Yemeni forces. But there are ongoing U.S. concerns that Yemen could use the equipment and those forces against Shiite rebels who have fought government forces intermittently for years in the north or a separate front against secessionists in the south.
Many critics inside Yemen say the aid is going to fight government opponents, particularly the southern secessionists, and that Yemen is simply milking the West for money to carry out an agenda that doesn’t necessarily make fighting al-Qaeda its top priority.
Soon after the mail bombs were detected, other government officials echoed Sharaf’s call for more equipment and assistance to fight al-Qaeda.
The failed attacks exposed the government’s lack of success against al-Qaeda and its growing threat to the regime and showed that the group was using Yemen as a base to plot international attacks.
Yemen is clearly expected to show how it is using the aid it has been given. In addition to asking for more intelligence cooperation, a U.S. official said Washington also wants to have access to prisoners allegedly from al-Qaeda.
Much Western aid has poured into Yemen’s security and military agencies in the 10 years since al-Qaeda bombers steered an explosives-laden boat into the Navy destroyer USS Cole that was refueling at a Yemeni port, killing 17 U.S. sailors.
In the past five years, U.S. military assistance to Yemen has totaled about $250 million. That covered programs to train and equip Yemeni forces to combat al-Qaeda, as well as buy boats and other equipment for the airport and seaports. It also paid for training senior officers here and in the U.S.
About 50 elite U.S. military experts are in the country training Yemeni counterterrorism forces — a number that has doubled in the past year.
At least four new security branches to combat terrorism as well as a new anti-terrorism administration in the air force were created, with much Western financing and technical support.
Many in Yemen say Western assistance is going to train new forces — many of which are commanded by Saleh’s eldest son and other relatives — instead of supporting older troops battered by other wars.
A Yemeni coast guard service was founded soon after the USS Cole attack with U.S. aid. A special forces unit and the National Security Agency were formed around the same time to supplement the work of the intelligence services.
An anti-terrorism unit under the Interior Ministry was also added, and a similar anti-terrorism administration was created under the air force.
Although the U.S. trains Yemeni special forces, Yemen frequently sends part of its regular armed forces — estimated to number about a half-million — to hunt al-Qaeda militants in the south. And the new U.S. demand for more intelligence-sharing and access to prisoners is viewed in Yemen as a move by the U.S. to increase its oversight of how U.S. military assistance is being used.
The presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown in Yemen and has become increasingly emboldened, directing attacks overseas and inside the country against security officials and foreigners.
Last month’s mail bombs traveled from Yemen on several flights before they were discovered in airports in England and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. They did not explode, but investigators said they could have.
U.S. intelligence has linked U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed hiding in southern Yemen, to last year’s failed Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner. He also had ties to some of the 9/11 hijackers and to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people in November 2009 at the military base in Fort Hood, Texas. Yemeni officials have said al-Awlaki may have given his blessing for the mail bomb plot.
Al-Qaeda elements have increasingly taken refuge in the south, where there is little government control.
Government critics suspect the troops used against al-Qaeda-linked militants in the south are aimed mainly at weakening the secessionist movement.
A security official said the government doesn’t have a clear strategy against al-Qaeda. Many of the raids on alleged al-Qaeda hideouts yield no specific or strategic arrests or killings but end with large deployment of troops in southern opposition strongholds, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
A Shiite rebellion in northern Yemen on the border with Saudi Arabia has also been simmering for about six years, with intermittent fighting. A year ago, Yemeni forces fought a flare-up in the north, which was put down only with the help of Saudi forces.
A fragile cease-fire is holding with the northern rebels, but the fighting has left the army battered, and much of that territory is outside government control.