WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. passenger jet has put a spotlight on the growing prominence of al Qaeda in Yemen and the expanding role of the U.S. military and spy agencies in fighting the group.
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 increasing military pressure from the Pakistani army in bordering tribal areas.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attempted bombing of a Delta Airlines plane as it approached Detroit on a flight from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board.
The group said it provided Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, with an explosive device but it failed to detonate. Abdulmutallab was taken into custody and charged, and told U.S. investigators that al Qaeda in Yemen equipped and trained him, U.S. officials said.
He lived in Yemen from August to December after obtaining a visa to study Arabic there, the Yemeni government said, adding that there was “nothing suspicious about his intentions” to visit the country.
President Barack Obama on Monday vowed to use “every element of our national power” to combat militants who threaten the United States “whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia or anywhere.”
Al Qaeda’s regional wing in Yemen has been gaining ground over the past year and has created an important base of operations for the network outside Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials.
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.
Defense and counterterrorism officials say the United States has quietly been supplying military equipment, intelligence and training to Yemeni forces to root out suspected al Qaeda hide-outs.
In its statement, posted on Islamist websites, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said it sent Abdulmutallab to avenge what it described as U.S. attacks against the group.
Yemen said Shehri may have been among 30 militants killed in a recent air raid targeting the group in the country. He is among several Guantanamo returnees who have joined the militants since being released. Some of them have been killed.
U.S. officials declined to comment on whether U.S. aircraft have taken part in the raids in Yemen, as al Qaeda claimed.
In fiscal 2009, the U.S. Defense Department provided Yemen with some $67 million in overt counterterrorism assistance, a figure that does not include covert programs run by U.S. special forces and the CIA, officials said.
The Pentagon has proposed expanding that overt assistance program in fiscal 2010 but defense officials declined to provide a dollar-figure or details.
“Yemen has a growing al Qaeda threat and the government there has taken important steps to address it,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said when asked about Yemen’s arrest of 29 suspected al Qaeda members.
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. 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 the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Since Saudi and Yemeni militants united earlier this year under the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, there has been a “steady uptick” in the group’s activities, said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment.
“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 battling al Qaeda, Yemen is fighting Shi’ite rebels in the north and faces separatist sentiment in the south.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington and Firouz Sedarat in Dubai; Editing by Chris Wilson and Cynthia Osterman