The Dangerous US Game in Yemen
After 9/11, President Bush put Yemen on a list of potential early targets in the “war on terror”; he could have swiftly dismantled Saleh’s government despite Saleh’s pre-9/11 declaration that “Yemen is a graveyard for the invaders.” But Saleh was determined not to go the way of the Taliban, and he wasted little time making moves to ensure he wouldn’t.
The first was to board a plane to the United States in November 2001. During his meetings in Washington, Saleh was presented with an aid package worth up to $400 million in addition to funding from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Crucially for the Bush administration, the new US relationship with Saleh would also include expanding special forces military training. It was this training that would permit US Special Forces to deploy discreetly in Yemen while allowing Saleh to save face domestically. As part of Saleh’s deal with the Bush administration, the United States created a “counterterrorism camp” in Yemen run by the CIA, Marines and Special Forces that was backed up by Camp Lemonier, the US outpost in the nearby African nation of Djibouti, which housed Predator drones. Located just an hour from Yemen by boat, the secretive base would soon serve as a command center for covert US action in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
“Saleh knows how to survive,” says Emile Nakhleh, a former senior intelligence officer in the CIA who ran its office on political Islam during the Bush administration. After 9/11, Saleh “learned very quickly” that he “had to speak the anti-terrorism language,” Nakhleh adds. “So he came here seeking support, seeking financing. He would come here or speak to us in a language we would like and would understand, but then he would go home and do all kinds of alliances with all kinds of shady characters to help him survive. I don’t think he really honestly believed that Al Qaeda posed a serious threat to his regime.”
As construction began on Lemonier, the United States beefed up the presence of military “trainers” inside Yemen. Among the forces inserted alongside the trainers were members of a clandestine military intelligence unit within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) known as The Activity. While officially in Yemen as trainers, they quickly set out to establish operational capacity to track Al Qaeda suspects in the country, hoping to find and fix their location so that US forces could finish them off. A year after Saleh’s meeting with Bush at the White House, the US “trainers” would set up their first “wet” operation. It wouldn’t be their last.
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In 2002 US intelligence operatives discovered that the man they had fingered as one of the masterminds of the Cole attack, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was in the country. US officials had dubbed him “the godfather of terror in Yemen.” On November 3 the JSOC signals intelligence team in Yemen located Harithi in a compound in Marib province after he used a mobile phone number that US intelligence had traced to him months earlier. “Our special-ops had the compound under surveillance,” recalled Gen. Michael DeLong, at the time deputy commander of US Central Command (Centcom). They were “preparing to storm in when Ali exited with five of his associates. They got into SUVs and took off.”
As part of the operation, the CIA launched an MQ-1 Predator drone from its outpost in Djibouti into Yemen’s airspace. This wasn’t just a spy drone—it was armed with two anti-tank Hellfire missiles. After CIA Director George Tenet gave the green light for action, a five-foot-long Hellfire missile slammed into the SUV, blowing it up.
Among those killed in the strike was Ahmed Hijazi, aka Kamal Derwish, a US citizen born in Buffalo, New York. After the attack, US officials publicly tied Hijazi to a group in Buffalo that came to be known as the Lackawanna Six. Hijazi had been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the alleged plot of six Yemeni-Americans to provide material support to Al Qaeda.
Unnamed US officials quoted in media reports revealed that the strike was a US operation, but they were reluctant to discuss the US role. “We didn’t want publicity,” recalled DeLong. “If questions did arise, the official Yemeni version would be that an SUV carrying civilians accidentally hit a land mine in the desert and exploded. There was to be no mention of terrorists, and no mention of missiles fired.” But then, on November 5, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confirmed that it was a US strike. “It’s a very successful tactical operation, and one hopes each time you get a success like that, not only to have gotten rid of somebody dangerous but to have imposed changes in their tactics and operations and procedures,” he declared on CNN. Saleh was described as being “highly pissed” at the disclosure. “This is going to cause me major political problems,” he complained to Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of Centcom.
It was the first publicly confirmed targeted killing by the United States outside a battlefield since Gerald Ford banned political assassinations in 1976. In response to criticism from human rights groups, the Bush administration pushed back hard, asserting its right under US law to kill people it designated as terrorists in any country, even if they were US citizens. “I can assure you that no constitutional questions are raised here,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Fox News a week after the attack. “The president has given broad authority to US officials in a variety of circumstances to do what they need to do to protect the country. We’re in a new kind of war, and we’ve made very clear that it is important that this new kind of war be fought on different battlefields.” She added, “It’s broad authority.”
From 2003 to 2006, Saleh’s government largely fell off the Bush administration’s counterterrorism radar, save for the occasional meeting to demand action on the Cole suspects. In 2006, while the administration was singularly focused on Iraq, a mass prison break in Sana would prove to be a seminal event in the reconstruction of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Among those who escaped were several key figures who would form the nexus of the leadership of AQAP, including Naser al-Wuhayshi, bin Laden’s former personal secretary. On February 3, 2006, Wuhayshi and twenty-two others tunneled out of their maximum-security prison cell into a nearby mosque. Wuhayshi later boasted that they performed morning prayers before walking out the front door. Wuhayshi would go on to unite the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda under the regional banner of AQAP. Qasim al-Rimi, another escapee, would become AQAP’s military commander. In 2007 Saleh released Fahd al-Quso, a Cole bombing suspect who had been jailed in 2002. In May 2010 Quso appeared in an AQAP video, threatening to attack the United States and its embassies and ships.
As Al Qaeda regrouped in Yemen, it began to carry out a series of small-scale actions, primarily in Marib province, the site of the 2002 drone strike that killed Harithi. In March 2007 Al Qaeda members assassinated the chief criminal investigator in Marib, Ali Mahmud al-Qasaylah, for his alleged role in the strike. In an audio message, Rimi announced that Wuhayshi was officially the new head of Al Qaeda in Yemen. In the message, Rimi vowed that the group would continue to take revenge on those responsible for the strike. Two weeks later, suicide bombers attacked a convoy of Spanish tourists in Marib, killing eight of them along with their two Yemeni drivers. In January 2008, they attacked a group of Belgian tourists.
In all, there were more than sixty documented Al Qaeda attacks on Yemeni soil by the end of the Bush administration. Over the years, US military aid and CIA financing has steadily increased. “When [Al Qaeda] starts creating problems in Yemen, the US money starts flowing,” asserts the former senior counterterrorism official. “For Saleh, Al Qaeda is the gift that keeps on giving. They are his number-one fundraiser to get Saudi and US money.”
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During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain and other Republicans attempted to portray Barack Obama as too caught up in the niceties of civil liberties and international law to deal with the threat of global terrorism. But in fact, from the first days of his administration, the president was hyper-focused on escalating the covert war against Al Qaeda and expanding it far beyond Bush-era levels, particularly in Yemen.
In April 2009 Gen. David Petraeus, then head of Centcom, approved a plan developed with the US Embassy in Sana, the CIA and other intelligence agencies to expand US military action in Yemen. The plan not only involved special-ops training for Yemeni forces but unilateral US strikes against AQAP. Though Petraeus paid lip service to the cooperation between the United States and Yemen, he was clear that the United States would strike whenever it pleased. In fact, he issued a seven-page secret order authorizing small teams of US special-ops forces to conduct clandestine operations off the stated battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was marked “LIMDIS,” short for “limited distribution.” The directive, known as a Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force (JUWTF) Execute Order, served as a permission slip of sorts for special-ops teams. “Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress,” reported Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who was allowed to read the order.
The order spoke volumes about the continuity of foreign policy from the previous administration to the Obama White House. Under the Bush administration, the Pentagon regularly justified such actions with the mantra that the forces were not at war but rather “preparing the battlefield.” What was significant about Petraeus’s 2009 order was that it extended and solidified the Bush-era justification for expanding covert wars under President Obama.
During a September 6, 2009, meeting with Brennan in Sana, Saleh opened the door wide for the United States, pledging “unfettered access to Yemen’s national territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations,” according to a classified US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. “Saleh insisted that Yemen’s national territory is available for unilateral CT [counterterrorism] operations by the U.S.”