* Group shifting from regional to global focus
* U.S. intelligence agencies alarmed by growth
By Adam Entous
WASHINGTON, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has transformed itself from a regional threat into what U.S. spy agencies see as the network’s most active affiliate outside Pakistan and Afghanistan with global ambitions, American officials said on Tuesday.
The growing al Qaeda threat from Yemen has been tracked with alarm by U.S. intelligence agencies and prompted President Barack Obama quietly to expand assistance to the Yemeni government to launch deadly raids against militant hide-outs earlier this month, the officials said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula this week claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing on Christmas Day of a Delta Airlines plane as it approached Detroit on a flight from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board.
The group said it was avenging what it described as U.S. attacks against its leaders and operatives in Yemen.
The explosive device on the U.S.-bound plane, carried by Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, failed to detonate, but U.S. authorities consider the breach to be one of the most serious since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Obama has vowed to go after those behind the attempted bombing, and U.S. defense officials said military and intelligence cooperation with Yemen was likely to grow as part of the administration’s review of its counterterrorism priorities, now focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Appealing for more help from the United States and Europe, Yemen’s foreign minister, Abubakr al-Qirbi, described the current level of assistance as “inadequate” and said his country needed more training for counterterrorism units, and more military equipment, particularly helicopters.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s profile started to change in the eyes of U.S. intelligence community earlier this year after Saudi and Yemeni militants merged into a single organization based in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest state.
Qirbi, speaking to BBC radio, estimated that there could be up to 300 al Qaeda militants in his country.
A former detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Saeed al-Shehri from Saudi Arabia, has emerged as a top al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader since U.S. authorities sent him home in November 2007. Yemen says he may have been among 30 militants killed in a recent air raid.
Citing the risk of other Guantanamo returnees joining al Qaeda, Representative Frank Wolf, a senior Republican, urged Obama to halt releases to unstable countries like Yemen.
Of the 198 prisoners left at Guantanamo, which Obama has vowed to close, 91 are from Yemen, and talks over repatriating them have bogged down due to security concerns.
U.S. official say civil war and lawlessness have made Yemen an ideal base for al Qaeda, which has largely been pushed out of Afghanistan and has come under increasing military pressure to leave Pakistan’s tribal areas.
“It has been evolving over several months,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said of the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“They were focused really on Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But there are indications that the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen is starting to focus on more global targets rather than just regional ones,” the official said, calling the trend “very concerning.”
“They are probably the most active al Qaeda affiliate outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the official added.
The United States has increased the amount of military equipment, intelligence and training it provides to Yemeni forces to root out suspected al Qaeda hide-outs.
Officials say much of the aid is covert and classified, in part to avert a backlash against the Yemeni government, which, on top of al Qaeda, is battling Shi’ite rebels in the North and faces separatist sentiment in the South.
The Pentagon’s main publicly disclosed counterterrorism assistance program for Yemen has grown from just $4.6 million in fiscal 2006 to $67 million in fiscal 2009, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
In 2009, Whitman said, the money was used to provide training, as well as equipment like radios, helicopter spare parts, trucks and patrol boats. But he added: “I’m not here to enumerate every aspect of our assistance.”
Some defense officials chafe at characterizations of Yemen as the No. 1 al Qaeda threat outside the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, citing the group’s expanding presence in lawless Somalia.
“I don’t know if I want to rank order them,” Whitman said of the al Qaeda’s major hubs. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)