A Yemeni soldier operates at the checkpoint on the northern entrance of the capital, San'a, on Jan. 13.
A Yemeni soldier operates at the checkpoint on the northern entrance of the capital, San'a, on Jan. 13. Nasser Nasser/AP
In a move that surprised Western counterterrorism officials, Yemen renewed its war on al-Qaida last month with airstrikes and raids against suspected operatives.
Analysts said it was a sharp change of direction for a government that had been reluctant to take on al-Qaida, and it led to a huge spike in promised military aid from the Obama administration.
On Dec. 17, Yemeni forces, with U.S. assistance, launched raids and airstrikes against al-Qaida targets. More airstrikes followed a week later, targeting what officials said was a meeting of top regional operatives of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The attacks have continued this month.
For years, Washington had been urging President Ali Abdullah Saleh to deal with the growing al-Qaida presence in Yemen. Yemeni officials countered that they were too busy battling Shiite rebels in the northern Saada province and a secessionist movement in the south.
But the presence of al-Qaida took on greater significance in late December. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student accused of attempting to carry out the Christmas Day attack aboard a Detroit-bound trans-Atlantic airliner, has told investigators that he was trained by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.
The Yemeni government had feared that military action against al-Qaida would produce a backlash from conservatives in Yemen. The hard-line sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani warned Muslim worshippers in a San'a mosque recently about "secret agreements that would allow the U.S. military to bomb Yemenis from unmanned aircraft," and he called for a jihad, or holy war, if foreign forces invade Yemen.
Independent political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani said despite its political worries, Yemen's leaders finally decided that neither conservative public sentiment nor the northern rebellion in Saada was sufficient reason to ignore the al-Qaida threat.
"The government has been avoiding this war for a long time, under the pretext that there is a war in Saada, which is, actually, a completely unnecessary war that they could stop at any time. And because of fears that there is some kind of a power base for terrorism in Yemen and they didn't want to antagonize it," Iryani said.
So Far, No Basis For Fears
The argument among government supporters in San'a has been that attacking al-Qaida, which has insinuated itself among the conservative tribes in remote parts of the country, would provoke a popular backlash that could seriously destabilize the government.
Iryani said, so far, the reaction to this series of strikes proves that such fears had no basis.
"Nothing. And, in fact, if you look at facts on the ground, the ideological base for al-Qaida is not in Yemen," Iryani said. "It's in Saudi Arabia,"
Iryani added, "The funding for al-Qaida comes from Saudi Arabia. And I'm convinced the leadership — the real leadership — is still in Saudi Arabia. I don't think we need to worry about a popular backlash against the government for fighting terrorism."
Other analysts caution, however, that while Yemeni tribes have no natural affinity with al-Qaida, airstrikes that produce large numbers of civilian casualties will be powerful recruiting tools for the militants.
"If the U.S. makes the same mistakes it made in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this of course will drive the people into a rage, and they will join an alliance with al-Qaida," said Saeed Obaid al-Jamhi, the author of a book on al-Qaida in Yemen.
Possible Threat To Yemen
Yemeni officials said there is another reason for the recent strikes, which have continued this month: Al-Qaida operatives were including Yemeni targets in their plots.
The Dec. 17 operations, for instance, are believed to have thwarted a plan to send four al-Qaida suicide bombers into San'a to attack either Yemeni or Western institutions.
Whatever the initial motivation, analysts said the result of Yemen's newfound determination to root out al-Qaida operatives will be a massive influx of security aid from the U.S.
That will have two effects, analysts said. It should encourage Yemen to keep up the fight, and it will tie the Obama administration ever more closely to a regime that has been criticized for widespread corruption.