WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Yemen has made progress in its U.S.-backed fight against al Qaeda, but the extremist group continues to spread elsewhere and has some two dozen affiliates across a swath of the globe, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
At congressional hearings, U.S. officials painted a picture of an al Qaeda that has expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Africa and Southeast Asia.
"Al Qaeda is now difficult to define," Admiral Eric Olson, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, told a House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee.
"More than two dozen associated ... groups have established themselves in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, the trans-Saharan region, the Maghreb of North Africa, West Africa and Southeast Asia, and there are several different groups now operating within and from Afghanistan and Pakistan," Olson said.
He said al Qaeda's forces have been regenerated in part by extremists who had been detained, were released and then joined militant groups. Olson said officials estimate about one fifth of former detainees are "somehow re-engaging in activity ... against our interests."
Critics of President Barack Obama's call to close the prison at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have cited the movement of former detainees to militant groups as a reason to keep the facility.
Earlier on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller indicated the terrorist threat had grown to include some Americans.
"We ... face threats from individuals who travel abroad to terrorist training camps in order to commit acts of terrorism overseas or to return home to attack America," Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
That followed a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that some Americans suspected of training in al Qaeda camps in Yemen, including dozens who converted to Islam in U.S. prisons, may pose a threat to the United States.
The report focused on a group of up to 36 former U.S. criminals who converted to Islam in prison and arrived in Yemen in the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic.
Yemen has not yet received any information about those Americans mentioned in the Senate report, Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told the Washington Post.
U.S. officials told lawmakers there has been some success against al Qaeda in Yemen, which has become a focus of concern since the December attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner for which the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility.
While the United States has promised millions of dollars more in the coming year to Yemen to take on al Qaeda, it was not "naive" about the Yemeni government, Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Yemen has an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy, its willingness to take on al Qaeda in the past had been "inconsistent," and it was distracted by a tribal revolt in the North and unrest in the South, he said.
"But I would note that over the past month or six weeks there has been a much greater focus by the government of Yemen on the threat posed by al Qaeda. This is an encouraging sign," he said.
Yemen is changing its visa procedures and will require entry permits to be issued at its embassies abroad rather than on arrival in Yemen, Qirbi told the Washington Post.
The Yemeni government has also asked all Arabic-language institutes to provide information on foreign students, he said.
General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has recommended doubling military aid for Yemen next year to about $150 million. The military aid is in addition to development aid, which also includes some aid to Yemeni security forces and is about $63 million in the current year.
Additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko and Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by David Alexander and Mohammad Zargham