Yemeni protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in the Radfan district of Lahj in southern Yemen on Dec. 24, 2009, against a government raid that targeted suspected al-Qaida members.
Yemeni protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in the Radfan district of Lahj in southern Yemen on Dec. 24, 2009, against a government raid that targeted suspected al-Qaida members. AFP/Getty Images
On a hot, dry morning in Yemen's capital of San'a, a group of future police officers falls into line.
The men are being trained as a counterterrorism unit by U.S. special operations forces, but the Americans are keeping a low profile. Analysts here say the less that average Yemenis know about U.S. involvement in the country's fight against the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the better.
The group, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, has claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bombing aboard a Northwest flight bound for Detroit. To help the Yemeni government fight it, the U.S. recently pledged $150 million in military aid to train and equip Yemen's security forces.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies are also quietly sharing surveillance with the Yemenis, which helped them launch airstrikes against suspected al-Qaida hideouts in December, as well as another round of strikes last week.
But some in the country are concerned about how the Yemeni government is using the U.S. help — and whether the aid will really go to the fight against al-Qaida.
Yemen's government initially called the December airstrikes a success, but political science professor Abdullah al-Faqih says that message changed.
"Many civilians were killed," he says. "And we are not sure even a single ... al-Qaida leader was hit."
It was widely reported that the December attacks killed 42 civilians. Faqih says this will only encourage more people to side with al-Qaida.
"With airstrikes, unless you are a hundred percent sure that you are really targeting al-Qaida and [there will be] no collateral damage — or the collateral damage is reduced to the minimum — then you are making things worse," he says.
Last week's airstrikes hit the southern region, where the government is battling a secessionist movement as well as al-Qaida. Officials claimed to have killed two al-Qaida leaders.
Faqih says he worries American military aid is being used for the wrong reasons.
"We are afraid that the government is going to use this aid ... against the opposition, against, you know, innocent people and not against al-Qaida," he says. "So again, the Yemeni government needs the aid, definitely. But it also needs someone to watch out for what it does."
A Complicated History
In neighboring Saudi Arabia, where al-Qaida declared war against the royal family, security forces defeated militants by going door to door, street to street, Faqih says. But here in Yemen, the situation is more complicated.
First, Yemen is poor compared to oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Second, there is less incentive for the Yemeni government to strike a group that is threatening the West, not the government itself. Third, Faqih says, there are close ties between some in the Yemeni government and al-Qaida militants who fought alongside government troops against southern secessionists in the past.
"The government knows the first generation of al-Qaida," he says. "They have worked with them, I mean, in Afghanistan; they have worked with them during the 1990s. They fought alongside with the government in 1994. So at least they know ... the big guys."
In other words, he says, the Yemeni government knows where these "big guys" live and could get to them — if it wanted to.
'Let The People Speak'
Even now, Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni cleric who is wanted by American authorities for allegedly inspiring the Fort Hood shooter and the would-be Christmas Day bomber, has high-placed connections. Awlaki's father, a close adviser to Yemen's president, has urged the U.S. to call off the hunt for his son.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently released a report urging U.S. officials not to throw money at Yemen's government, but to help Yemen build a political system that's more inclusive. That way, the report says, groups like Yemen's tribes, which might have some influence over al-Qaida, could help negotiate an end to the violence.
Murad Zafer, who heads a Yemeni think tank, says he has been making that argument for years.
"Instead of focusing on the government, don't exclude the people," Zafer says. "The people are very important ... because they, the people, have a say against extremism. And let the people speak for themselves and empower them to speak."
Zafer says the political elite doesn't need any more aid — it's the rest of Yemen that could use the help.