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U.S., Yemen Face Juggling Act In Response To Threat

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U.S., Yemen Face Juggling Act In Response To Threat

Middle East

U.S., Yemen Face Juggling Act In Response To Threat

U.S., Yemen Face Juggling Act In Response To Threat

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The suspect in the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, spent the past few months in Yemen. And a branch of al-Qaida based in Yemen has claimed responsibility for the attack.

That's raising questions about the Obama administration's complicated relationship with Yemen amid U.S. military and intelligence efforts to counter a growing threat.

When Gen. David Petraeus, overall commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East and central Asia, showed up to give a speech at the National Press Club in September, he delivered a report card on progress against al-Qaida.

Petraeus said the overall effort was going well in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — a whole raft of countries. "With the exception of Yemen," he said. "And that's where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has established its headquarters. This is a concern."

How To React?

That Yemen is a "concern" has been blindingly obvious to the U.S. military since at least 2000. That's when al-Qaida operatives bombed the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors.

But this past year has seen an increasing number of links between Yemen and plots targeting the U.S. homeland: The man charged with killing an Army recruiter in Little Rock, Ark., in June had traveled to Yemen. The man charged with killing 13 people last month at Fort Hood, Texas, has been linked to a radical American cleric in Yemen. And now, of course, there's the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

The question is, what can or should the U.S. do about it?

"The reality is, Yemen's going to need help," says Juan Zarate, a top counterterrorism adviser in the Bush White House. He notes that Yemen has not been shy about asking the U.S. for training and gear.

"Everything as basic as Humvee-like vehicles, armored vehicles, to military transport planes. And then, weaponry," he says. "Yemen is always in need of lots of things."

In fact, the Pentagon provided nearly $70 million in counterterrorism aid to Yemen this past year.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirms the money has bought things like radios, helicopter parts, patrol boats — as well as paid for the training of Yemeni forces.

But there are limits to this approach, as Zarate points out. "I think a major question and impediment, frankly, in terms of any counterterrorism relationship is: Can the country actually absorb the training, the dollars, the equipment — and then use it effectively at the end of the day? If the answer to that is no, then throwing more money at the problem isn't going to necessarily solve anything."

A Balancing Act

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence activity in Yemen has been an open secret since November 2002, when a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA Predator took out six suspected terrorists driving across the Yemeni desert.

A former top U.S. intelligence official tells NPR that in the years since then, the CIA has played an active role in Yemen and has shared intelligence gathered by satellite imagery, spies and other sources.

But neither he nor current officials would confirm what exactly the U.S. role has been in two major airstrikes this month against al-Qaida militants in Yemen: the first on Dec. 17; the second a week later, on Christmas Eve.

Yemeni officials insist they used the country's own planes to carry out the raids.

This is a delicate point, says Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence official who now advises the United Nations on the al-Qaida threat.

Barrett, who just returned two weeks ago from a trip to Yemen, says the more that becomes known about U.S. efforts there, the less effective they will be.

"The American involvement with the Yemeni authorities will be likely in the short term to bring more support to al-Qaida, because the anti-Americanism there will rise," he says.

That argues for the U.S. to provide assistance quietly, Barrett says, to help the Yemeni government avoid a backlash.

"There's a very difficult balance to strike between getting support from outside and losing support from inside," he says.

Deciding On A Response

In the United States, President Obama is trying to strike a difficult balance as well.

The president says his administration will respond forcefully to the attempted attack on Christmas — which he has called a "totally unacceptable" security lapse.

But as commander-in-chief, he knows U.S. resources are already stretched thin in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both those considerations will be in play as the Obama administration decides how to respond to mounting evidence that al-Qaida leaders in Yemen may have had a hand in plotting a direct attack against the U.S. mainland.