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Airstrike in Yemen Targets Terror Operatives

December 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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An airstrike in Yemen has killed at least 30 militants. Among the dead is believed to be an outspoken cleric with ties to the alleged gunman at Fort Hood. Jeffrey Brown talks to experts for details.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now to Yemen, a growing focus of the fight against international terrorism. The government there launched airstrikes against al-Qaida hideouts today, reportedly killing 30 militants, possibly including the group’s top two regional leaders and a figure linked to the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings.

The Fort Hood connection involved this man, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Muslim imam. Yemeni officials it’s believed he died in an airstrike in the Shabwa region, part of an escalating campaign against al-Qaida forces there.

The FBI has said Awlaki was contacted by U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan a year ago. Last month, Hasan allegedly shot and killed 13 comrades at Fort Hood, Texas.

Yemen also claimed other key kills in today’s air raid. The Yemeni Embassy in Washington issued a statement, saying, “Preliminary reports suggest that the strike targeted scores of Yemeni and foreign al-Qaida operatives. Nasser al-Wahayshi, the regional al-Qaida leader, and his deputy, Saeed al-Shihri, alongside Anwar al-Awlaki, were presumed to be at the site.”

Saeed al-Shihri was held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay for nearly six years. He was sent to Saudi Arabia in 2007. Just last week, Yemen carried out another strike on al-Qaida. According to some reports, planes fired American missiles to kill at least 34 suspected militants and an unspecified number of civilians.

After that raid, a U.S. State Department spokesman wouldn’t comment directly. Instead, he reiterated U.S. support for Yemen.

ROBERT WOOD, spokesman, U.S. Department of State: We cooperate with the government of Yemen and other governments around the world in fighting al-Qaida and others, you know, practicing terrorism.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the U.S. has given at least $70 million in military aid to Yemen this year, a sharp increase from the past. The country, long a redoubt of al-Qaida, has become a focal point of U.S. counterterror strategy.

It’s also been the site of past attacks on U.S. targets. The American Embassy there was hit last fall by a coordinated assault including car bombs. And, in October 2000, the destroyer USS Cole was bombed in the Port of Aden by al-Qaida operatives. Seventeen American sailors were killed in that attack.

And for more on all this, we turn to Christopher Boucek from the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a frequent visitor to Yemen, and Glenn Carle, a 23-year veteran of the CIA, including service as deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats, where he tracked terror networks like al-Qaida. He retired in 2007.

Welcome to both of you.

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: We are still waiting for more information about the results of these attacks. But, Chris Boucek, what is known about the presumed targets, these leaders? How important are they?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: If this proves to be correct, this would be a huge victory for the struggle against al-Qaida in Yemen.

The people who were talked about as being targets, Nasser al-Wahayshi is the commander of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the resurgent al-Qaida organization, the merger that was the result of Saudi and al-Qaida affiliates, as well as his deputy commander, Saeed al-Shihri, a Saudi national who had returned from Guantanamo Bay.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add about the significance of these two in particular?

GLENN CARLE, former U.S. deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats: I think it is a very significant development. Certainly, in the straightforward sense of any time you have an operational success and you get a senior member of al-Qaida or an affiliated group, that is a good thing.

I think we may find that this has a more lasting impact than the many similar sounding successes. I would attribute the increase in terrorist attacks over the last two years or three years in Yemen to al-Wahayshi. And I think that his elimination will have probably a noticeably positive impact.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I mentioned there was an attack last week and this. Is there a reason why these attacks are happening now?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Well, I think the government of Yemen is under incredible pressure to take action against al-Qaida.

JEFFREY BROWN: From?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: From the United States and from Western allies, as well as regional allies. I think the Saudis especially are absolutely exasperated with the situation in Yemen.

As the situation in Yemen deteriorates, it is having a negative impact throughout the region, especially in Saudi Arabia.

What about Anwar al-Awlaki, now very well known here because of Fort Hood? What is his importance in the context of Yemen?

GLENN CARLE: I don’t know that he has particular importance in the context of Yemen, really.

I think the phenomenon of who becomes inspired to actually commit a jihadist terrorist act is clearly strongly linked to charismatic individuals. Traditionally, or normally, this happens in direct human contact. It might be the captain of a soccer team. That was the case in Thailand and elsewhere, in Casablanca also, with the attacks there.

But now, with the Internet, one can have virtual charismatic individuals inspiring people to act. And that is what we saw with Fort Hood, I think. So, it is a positive thing to have one less charismatic individual preying upon malleable souls, but, beyond, that, for Yemen, I don’t think particularly important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have more to add on that, on him in particular?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Well, I think — Awlaki, I think, is emblematic of a new generation of English-language preachers, so people who don’t have the access to Arabic or Urdu, but in English. And I think it’s kind of especially telling that, for the last couple weeks, there has been suggestion that Awlaki wasn’t very involved in jihadism or in al-Qaida-style terrorism.

However, to be at the same place where other people may have been killed would suggest otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Now, how big a threat is al-Qaida in Yemen? And to what degree are they independent or indigenous actors? And to what degree are they somehow tied to people in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

GLENN CARLE: Well, it’s — the simple paradigm has been to view al-Qaida as coherent and have its networks that follow clear commands from al-Qaida central and someplace in Waziristan.

I think, in this instance, there are — with al-Qaida in Yemen, there are legitimate links and associations. But one shouldn’t think of it as a direct subsidiary taking orders and only acting upon the orders, so, associations, a growing concern for the West, as Iraq as a pole for jihadists winds down, and the pressure in Waziristan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan increases, so, increasing concern, but not necessarily directly being a branch following orders.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see their strength there, or their threat to Yemen?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: I think it is a huge threat. I think, as the government in Yemen has less and less ability to exercise its control throughout the complete territory of the country, you see that there is greater and greater undergoverned spaces for al-Qaida-affiliated or aligned organizations to take route.

And this is what we see in Yemen. We see are more and more spaces as long as the central government in Yemen is preoccupied fighting the civil war…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, well, fill in the picture bit a for us, because the Yemen — the Yemeni government, this is just one concern for the government there, right?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Sure.

And the Yemeni government is facing an awful lot of challenges. They are fighting a civil war in the north against Shia Zaidi revivalists. There’s a secessionist movement in the south. There’s al-Qaida, a resurgent al-Qaida organization. Plus, the country is running out of money. They are running out of oil, running out of water.

Rampant inflation, unemployment, all of these things will — there is a fear — will overwhelm Yemen in the future. And we might have thought that would be three, four, five years down the road, but this war in Sa’ada is rapidly accelerating the economic collapse. It is destroying the economy. And that is what will doom Yemen.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it’s interesting. I mean, last night, we did a segment on Somalia as a potential failed state. And that sounds like what we are talking about here, too. But this one is on the border of Saudi Arabia.

GLENN CARLE: Right.

Well, I think to pick up on one of the points with the safe haven and failed state issue, Waziristan, where the — Northwest Frontier provinces in Pakistan and Yemen as the second one are the two primary areas of concern.

In many places in the world, the fear of a failed state, there is less there than our fears would lead us to believe. But, in these two cases, it truly is…

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s real

GLENN CARLE: … something of real concern for policy-makers and counterterrorism officials, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you said the U.S. was pushing for more action. And, as we said in our setup, the U.S. has given more money now. Is there a debate within — here in the U.S. about doing even more?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Oh, I think so.

I think — and I would hate to underestimate Yemen’s ability to absorb foreign assistance. But the foreign assistance Yemen gets is grossly disproportionate to the amount of military assistance that has been going into the country, counterterrorism training, training for the border guards and the coast guard.

I think a big policy dilemma, however, is that everyone knows what we want to avoid in Yemen: state failure, state collapse. No one can tell you what that looks like in Yemen. And no one can tell you what it will be that will lead to state failure.

So, coming up with the prescriptive policy measures is incredibly difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, do we expect more raids by the government with the help of the U.S. and the potential for retaliation, I assume?

GLENN CARLE: Well, my sense is that the answer is yes. It appears to me that the strikes in Yemen by counterterrorism officials, by Yemeni and with American and Saudi support, is part of a coherent strategy, really, to increase the pressure on the safe haven in Waziristan and now in the ungoverned parts of Yemen. This strikes me as a coherent approach and a conscious one.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there the expectation that retaliation is possible?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Oh, I think definitely.

I think one of the things about today is, I think there is talk that this may have been a meeting to plan out retaliation for last week’s attack. And I’m sure that there will be a response from al-Qaida. It will be a propaganda video or an attack or something. It is coming, for sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Christopher Boucek and Glenn Carle, thank you both very much.

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Thank you.

GLENN CARLE: Thank you.