WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States aims to spend $75 million to double the size of a special Yemeni counter-terrorism unit, a U.S. official said on Monday.
The funding, which has yet to be approved by Congress, is part of a broader effort to increase pressure on al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Congress last week he saw AQAP as the biggest current threat to the U.S. homeland.
The group has claimed responsibility for a failed Christmas Day attack in 2009 aboard a U.S. airliner and a more recent attempt last year to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes with toner cartridges packed with explosives.
The U.S. official said the funds would be invested in a special Yemeni counter-terrorism unit that is operated under Yemen’s interior ministry and now totals around 300 people.
The funds are unrelated to another $120 million earmarked for Yemen in President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget request unveiled on Monday. The request includes $35 million in additional military assistance for Yemen and $69 million in economic assistance.
Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for 30 years, has faced growing protests in recent weeks from thousands of Yemenis, inspired by uprisings that toppled Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
He is also under pressure to quash the resurgent al Qaeda wing in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, at the same time as he struggles to control southern secessionists and to cement a fragile truce with rebels in the north.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress last week that Yemen’s “myriad political, security, and development challenges” pose the greatest threat to that poor Arab nation since its 1994 civil war.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by John Whitesides