WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. passenger jet has put a spotlight on the Middle East state of Yemen which American spy agencies see as a rapidly growing hub for al Qaeda.
Civil war and lawlessness have turned the Arab world’s poorest state into an attractive alternative base for al Qaeda, which U.S. officials say has been largely pushed out of Afghanistan and is under growing military pressure from the Pakistani army in bordering tribal areas.
Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, is charged with attempting to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane as it approached Detroit on a flight from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board.
In U.S. questioning, Abdulmutallab claimed that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen supplied him with an explosive device and trained him on how to detonate it, an official said.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen has grown over the last year and Washington fears it could become a central base of operations outside Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials and experts.
The United States has quietly been supplying military equipment, intelligence and training to Yemeni forces, who have raided suspected al Qaeda hide-outs this month, they said.
U.S. officials declined to discuss specific assistance. But in September, U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh promising to help the government fight against terrorism, according to the Yemeni state news agency Saba.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the United States had a “growing presence” in Yemen which included Special Operations, Green Berets and intelligence.
Lieberman, who recently visited Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, said a U.S. government official there told him that “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”
In recent congressional testimony, Mike Leiter, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, called Yemen “a key battleground and potential regional base of operations from which al Qaeda can plan attacks, train recruits, and facilitate the movement of operatives.”
“Of particular concern to the FBI are individuals who can travel with fewer restrictions to these areas of extremist activity and then enter the United States under less scrutiny,” FBI Director Robert Mueller told lawmakers.
Yemen has been a long-standing base of support for al Qaeda. Militants bombed the Navy warship USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors, and Yemenis were one of the largest groups to train in al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan before September 11, 2001 attacks.
Of the 198 prisoners left at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Obama has vowed to close, 91 are from Yemen, and talks over repatriating them have bogged down due to concerns they will join al Qaeda once they return.
Since Saudi and Yemeni militants united earlier this year under the name “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” with Yemen as their base, there has been a “steady uptick” in the group’s activities, said Christopher Boucek, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.
“Yemen has rapidly become a very important secondary front” in al Qaeda’s global ambitions, Boucek said, with the “greatest growth potential” because the government has been unable to exert control over its own territory.
Besides combating al Qaeda militants, Yemen is fighting Shi’ite rebels in the north and faces separatist sentiment in the south.
Fearing instability in Yemen could turn into a security threat for the kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, began attacking Yemen’s Shi’ite Muslim rebels, known as the Houthis, in early November after the rebels staged a cross-border incursion and killed two Saudi border guards.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Alan Elsner