SAN’A, Yemen, (AP) – Yemeni security forces stormed an al-Qaeda hide-out Wednesday in a principle militant stronghold in the country’s west, setting off clashes, officials said, as a security chief vowed to fight the group’s powerful local branch until it was eliminated.
A government statement said at least one suspected al-Qaeda member was arrested during the fighting in Hudaydah province. The province, along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, was home to most of the assailants in a bombing and shooting attack outside the U.S. Embassy in 2008 that killed 10 Yemeni guards and four civilians.
“The (Interior) Ministry will continue tracking down al-Qaeda terrorists and will continue its strikes against the group until it is totally eliminated,” said Deputy Interior Minister Brig. Gen. Saleh al-Zawari.
He was speaking to senior military officials at a meeting in Mareb, one of three provinces where al-Qaeda militants are believed to have taken shelter.
The group’s growing presence in Yemen, an impoverished and lawless country on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has drawn attention with the attempted attack on a U.S. airliner on Friday. U.S. investigators say the Nigerian suspect in the attack told them that he received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula set up its Yemen base in January when operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged.
A security official who gave more details on Wednesday’s raid said it resulted from a tip and targeted a home five miles (eight kilometers) north of the Bajil district. He said one suspected al-Qaeda member was injured and several who fled were being pursued.
The owner of the home, a sympathizer of the group, was arrested, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Yemen will continue to coordinate its military efforts with the United States to track down al-Qaeda in several areas of the country, said Tarek al-Shami, spokesman of the ruling National Congress Party.
The U.S. has increasingly provided intelligence, surveillance and training to Yemeni forces during the past year, and has provided some firepower, a senior U.S. defense official said recently, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive security issues. Some of that assistance may be through the expanded use of unmanned drones, and the U.S. is providing funding to Yemen for helicopters and other equipment.
The Pentagon recently said it poured nearly $70 million in military aid into Yemen this year — compared with none in 2008.
More details surfaced Wednesday about the Nigerian man suspected in Friday’s attempted airliner attack. While in Yemen, he led a devout Islamic life, shunning TV and music and avoiding women, said students and staff at an institute where he studied Arabic.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab spent two periods in Yemen, from 2004-2005 and from August to December of this year, just before the attempted attack, Yemeni officials have said. Administrators at the institute said Wednesday he was enrolled at the school during both periods to study Arabic.
Abdulmutallab showed little interest in study during his brief time at the San’a Institute for the Arabic Language this year, which coincided with Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting. It began in late August.
“When I asked him why he wasn’t studying, he would tell me he wanted to devote his time for worship during Ramadan,” Ahmed Hassan, a 28-year-old Arabic language student from Singapore, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Hassan said he was stunned when he heard reports that Abdulmutallab, 23, told U.S. officials after his arrest he received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. He said he never suspected the Nigerian of belonging to the terrorist network.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the attempted attack on the airliner, which was bound for Detroit from Amsterdam. It said it was retaliation for a U.S. operation against the group in Yemen. More than 60 militants were killed in airstrikes this month carried out by Yemeni forces with U.S. intelligence assistance.
Staff and students at the institute said Abdulmutallab spent at most one month at the school. That has raised questions about what he did during the rest of his stay, which continued into December.
Ahmed Mohammed, one of the teachers at the institute, said Abdulmutallab spent the last 10 days of Ramadan sequestered in a mosque.
Youssef al-Khawlani, an administrator at the institute, recalled how upset Abdulmutallab was when he heard the ring tone of his phone, set to a popular song.
“When he heard it, he told me I should stop it because it was haram (forbidden by Islam),” said al-Khawlani. “He also would not watch TV.”
Before arriving in Yemen this year, Abdulmutallab studied for a master’s degree in international business at a university in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said the head of the university.
He was quiet and hardworking but showed no signs of extremism during two semesters of study starting in January, said the president of the University of Wollongong in Dubai, Robert Whelan.
“Even with the benefit of hindsight, nobody can identify anything in his behavior or his interactions through the university that would have been a red flag,” Whelan said in an interview with the AP.
The university has handed over names of some of Abdulmutallab’s classmates, along with enrollment data and other information about the suspect to Dubai police, Whelan said. He said the university is working with local authorities and has not been contacted by investigators overseas.
Dubai police officials could not be reached for comment.
The emirate’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, told Abu Dhabi state-owned daily The National that Abdulmutallab was not under surveillance while at the university.
“There was no reason to be suspicious of this man during his stay in Dubai, and we do not put people under surveillance for no reason,” Tamim was quoted as saying.