RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. has also recently pledged to assist Yemen with $150 million in military aid to train and equip that country's security forces. The money is meant to help fight Yemen's branch of al-Qaida. But there's a feeling among some there that the cash and weapons may be used in the wrong way.
Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Yemen's capital and sent this report.
(Soundbite of crowd chanting)
KELLY MCEVERS: It's a hot, dry morning at the central forces training facility in Yemen's capital. Men who someday will become police officers fall into line. This facility is home to Yemen's counterterrorism unit. The unit is trained by American Special Forces, but they're keeping a low profile.
Analysts here say the less that average Yemenis know about American involvement in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the better.
Behind the scenes, U.S. military and intelligence agencies are sharing surveillance with the Yemenis. That helped Yemeni forces launch airstrikes against suspected al-Qaida hideouts in December, and another round of strikes last week.
Yemen's government initially called the airstrikes a success, but political science Professor Abdullah al-Faqih says that message changed.
Professor ABDULLAH AL-FAQIH (Political Science): As it turned out, you know, the December attacks, I mean, it was just attacking civilians, you know, only civilians were killed. Many civilians were killed. And we are not sure even a single, you know, al-Qaida, I mean, leader was hit, you know.
MCEVERS: It was widely reported that 42 civilians were killed in the December attacks. Faqih says this will only encourage more people to side with al-Qaida.
Prof. AL-FAQIH: With airstrikes, unless you are a hundred percent sure that you are really targeting al-Qaida and no collateral damage - or the collateral damage is reduced to the minimum - then you are making things worse.
MCEVERS: Last week's airstrikes hit the southern region, where the government is battling a secessionist movement, as well as al-Qaida. Officials claim to have killed two al-Qaida leaders. Faqih says he worries American military aid is being used for the wrong reasons.
Prof. AL-FAQIH: We are afraid that the government is going to use this aid, I mean, you know, against the opposition, against, you know, innocent people and not against al-Qaida. So again, the Yemeni government needs the aid, definitely. But it also needs someone to watch out for what it does.
MCEVERS: 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's less incentive for the Yemeni government to strike a group that's 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.
Prof. AL-FAQIH: The government knows the first generation of al-Qaida. And then 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, I mean, they know, I mean, the big guys, you know.
MCEVERS: In other words, he says, the Yemeni government knows where these big guys live and could get to them if it wanted to.
Even now, Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni cleric who's wanted by American authorities for inspiring the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber, has high-placed connections. His father, a close adviser to Yemen's president, urged America 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 that's the argument he's been making for years.
Mr. MURAD ZAFER (Scholar): Instead of focusing on the government, don't exclude the people. The people are very important, and because they, the people, have a say against extremism. And let the people speak for themselves, and empower them to speak.
MCEVERS: Zafer says the political elite here doesn't need any more aid. It's the rest of Yemen that could use the help.
For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.