WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Of all the disclosures so far by WikiLeaks, among the most potentially damaging to U.S. national security interests could be U.S. diplomatic cables about Yemen, home to one of al Qaeda’s most active affiliates.
Experts say the revelations feed into al Qaeda’s portrayal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh as a puppet of the West, potentially complicating his ability to cooperate overtly with Washington in the war against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch.
One of the documents released by the WikiLeaks website alleges that Saleh essentially promised Washington he would lie about U.S. strikes in Yemen on al Qaeda targets.
"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh told General David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, on January 2, according to one of the cables. It can be seen here
In another cable, Saleh was quoted offering unfettered access to Yemeni territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations. here
“There will be repercussions,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University.
“What President Saleh and the U.S. wanted to avoid is that perception that Yemen really is much like Iraq and Afghanistan, in that Yemen is under Western military attack.”
Washington has been quietly ramping up its role in Yemen, acutely aware that too big of a footprint could exacerbate fierce anti-American sentiment in Yemen and undermine Saleh’s already weak central government.
But Washington is also under growing pressure to respond to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, following a failed parcel bomb plot against U.S. targets in October and an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas.
Juan Zarate, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, said the WikiLeaks disclosures could make it more difficult for Saleh to cooperate openly with the West — at least in the short run.
“The WikiLeaks controversy will no doubt make the calculus in Sanaa and for President Saleh more complicated. He will not want to be perceived, as he’s never wanted to be perceived, as a lackey of the West or puppet of the United States,” he said.
“He will want to demonstrate that it’s not true,” Zarate added.
The United States increased counterterrorism assistance to Yemen to $155 million in fiscal year 2010 from just $4.6 million in 2006. U.S. officials are also looking at additional ways to put pressure on militants, and have cited enhanced training of Yemeni forces as one option.
Zarate said Saleh may be more reluctant to host U.S. officials for counterterrorism training.
“That may one of the examples of things where cooperation may be slowed but not ultimately disrupted,” Zarate said.
In a sign of domestic concern, the deputy prime minister has been called to address parliament over the cables.
One Yemeni government official described the cables as inaccurate.
“Of course, this (information in the cables) is not true. Everyone in the world is complaining about the inaccuracies of these documents,” the official told Reuters earlier this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Zarate said he believed Saleh’s government would remain convinced that cooperation with the United States against al Qaeda was also in its own interest.
A cable from May 2009 disclosed a suspected al Qaeda plot to fire a surface-to-air missile at Saleh's presidential plane. here
Another cable published by WikiLeaks showed how Saleh had leveraged U.S. interest in cracking down on al Qaeda into resources for his government.
After the capture of an insurgent in 2005, “Saleh did not waste time for his usual quid-pro-quo tactics,” the embassy wrote.
“So, where’s my stuff?” it quoted Saleh asking. “I respond to you immediately when you need something and now, you must do the same for me.”
The Pentagon has acknowledged that militants are looking through the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables for information that could be useful, but at least one U.S. official played down any game-changing impact on al Qaeda’s communications strategy.
The insurgents already lash out widely against Sanaa and the West, a technique unlikely to change.
“AQAP really doesn’t need U.S. government cables to feed their hate-filled propaganda machine,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Johnsen said the leaked documents were unlikely to surprise Western-educated Yemenis in the capital but would do more damage in rural areas, where they would come as a surprise.
“I don’t think this is something that we’re able to judge in the coming weeks or the coming months, how serious these revelations have been,” Johnsen said.
“Rather it’s something that we (may be able to) look back at in a number of years and say, ‘Yes, this was something that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was really able to use (to win) the hearts and minds of the people in Yemen.’”
Additional reporting by Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa; Editing by Peter Cooney