U.S. Has Long Kept Watchful Eye On Yemen The attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day has thrown a spotlight on the nation of Yemen, after an al-Qaida group that's based there claimed responsibility for the foiled attack. But the United States had already been ramping up its operations in Yemen to counter the al-Qaida threat there.
NPR logo

U.S. Has Long Kept Watchful Eye On Yemen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122017601/122018469" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S. Has Long Kept Watchful Eye On Yemen

U.S. Has Long Kept Watchful Eye On Yemen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122017601/122018469" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day has thrown a spotlight on several key security issues. In a moment, we'll hear from former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about efforts to improve airport screening and the pitfalls of profiling. But we start overseas with the nation of Yemen. A group based there, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the foiled jetliner attack.

As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, Yemen's involvement does not come as a surprise to many in the counterterrorism world.

JACKIE NORTHAM: U.S. intelligence officials have long kept a close eye on Yemen, one of the poorest nations in the Arab world. The country is seen as ripe for Islamist militancy. It has a relatively weak government, which exerts little authority over large parts of the country. There's been a low-level rebellion in the north for years, as well as a secessionist movement in the south, all this in addition to the resurgent presence of al-Qaida. Yemen is also where the U.S. has been quietly building up its operations for more than a year, says Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK (Associate, Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Well, there's been a massive uptick in the amount of security assistance, military and security assistance going towards Yemen. This year, it's somewhere around $60 million to $70 million. That's training and equipment, that's help for the border guards, for the coast guard, this is, you know, vehicles and communications equipment and night-vision goggles, things like that.

NORTHAM: There are also U.S. training programs to help Yemeni counterterrorism units and to beef up the country's security forces, says Thomas Sanderson, with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. THOMAS SANDERSON (Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies): We've been putting in Special Forces. One of the main functions of Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, is to conduct foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency.

NORTHAM: Sanderson says the U.S. involvement in Yemen is nothing new but that it has picked up recently. Senior American military and national security officials have been visiting Yemen. And Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, speaking on FOX News Sunday, said the growing number of special operations forces and intelligence officials reflects the Obama administration's concern about Yemen.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent Democrat, Connecticut; Chairman, Senate Homeland Security Committee): Iraq was yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war - that's the danger we face.

NORTHAM: Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, says U.S. officials thought they had eradicated al-Qaida in Yemen when an American missile strike killed the group's leader in November 2002. Johnsen says, instead, al-Qaida in Yemen rebuilt itself, emerged with an affiliate in Saudi Arabia, making it a formidable force, much tougher to battle.

Mr. GREGORY JOHNSEN (Yemen Expert, Princeton University): The organization is now set up in a way and it's so strong, that when you kill key leaders, the organization is able to move on. And the organization still thrives because there are so many and they're so entrenched.

NORTHAM: As the Yemen group increases in strength and numbers, so too does U.S. involvement, says Carnegie's Christopher Boucek. He predicts greater covert action by the U.S., hunting al-Qaida operatives. U.S. officials refuse to discuss the issue openly. But already this month, there have been two missile attacks on suspected al-Qaida targets. Boucek says those strikes don't bear any resemblance to other Yemeni counterterrorism operations.

Dr. BOUCEK: They've usually been very heavy-handed. They're usually masked formations, usually it's, you know, artillery barrages or tank movements or things like that. There have not been too many precision strikes.

NORTHAM: Boucek says it's unlikely anyone will talk about the missile attacks. The U.S. is very careful to put a Yemen face on these types of strikes for fear of destabilizing the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, says Thomas Sanderson with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. SANDERSON: It damages the position of President Saleh. If you make a lot of noise about the U.S. going in there, it weakens his position. And it brings a lot of the opposition figures together.

NORTHAM: But analysts say it's unlikely these are the last strikes against suspected al-Qaida targets in Yemen. Now that there's a link between the militants there and the attempted attack on the Northwest Airline flight Christmas Day.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.