Yemen reignites U.S. politics of terrorBy Harry Siegel
January 4, 2010
The partisan battle over President Barack Obama’s handling of terrorism turned Sunday to Yemen – as the White House defended temporarily shutting the embassy there while Republicans called it a sign of weakness.
U.S. officials closed the embassy indefinitely, citing ongoing threats by the al Qaeda group linked to the failed Christmas Day bid to bomb a Detroit-bound flight. Britain also closed its embassy.
Republicans also seized on the Christmas Day plot, painting the failure of intelligence agencies to flag the bomber as a repeat of the signs missed before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“There’s no question that the president downplayed the risk of terrorism since he took office,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) on Sunday, “It begins with not even being willing to use the word.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), appearing with him on CNN, shot back, “It is unfair and frankly political to take pot shots as the president as we respond to this failure in our system that we’ve got to get fixed.”
The embassy shut-down also highlighted questions over whether Obama – or his Republican predecessor George W. Bush –focused enough attention on the troubled nation that is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden. Shutting an embassy is a rare and dire step, dramatizing the Arab nation's emerging position as one of the world's premier terrorist havens.
But one senior American official called it a sensible step in response to a current threat. “Closing of the Embassy in San’a is a temporary measure to ensure the safety of our personnel in response to a credible threat,” this official said. “Shutting down temporarily, for a day or two, this is something that happens at embassies all around the world when there is a threat and it is prudent to close.”
Obama’s top counter-terror adviser, John Brennan, who is leading the reviews the president requested of airport security procedures and how the government tracks attempted terrorists, also defended the move.
“There are indications that al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is targeting our embassy and targeting our personnel. We’re not going to take any chance with the lives of diplomats,” Brennan said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“We are very concerned about al Qaeda’s continued growth there,” he added on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But they are not just focusing on Yemen… They are increasingly looking to the West.”
“We keep thwarting their attacks, but they keep pressing,” warned Brennan, who did not specify the nature of the threat against the embassy.
Some Republicans seized on the closing of the embassy, which conservative pundit Bill Kristol called a “sign of weakness” on “Fox News Sunday.”
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), appearing on the same show, said that “It concerns me that we're saying we're going to work closely with the Yemenis, but we're closing the embassy. We didn't close the embassy in Kabul or embassy in Baghdad.”
Experts said the sparring over Yemen threatened to overshadow larger issues, as Al Qaeda operations shift around the globe, creating new fronts – and new headaches – for the Obama administration.
“It’s a much more profound problem than just Yemen,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former American Mideast negotiator, who said that while the nation has emerged as ”the al Qaeda sanctuary du jour, it’s been clearly a problem since the late 90s.”
“The next bombing will come out of Somalia and then we’ll have a Somali problem,” he said.
Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula “is a threat that has been ongoing for a number of years,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton scholar who studies Yemen. “Just because the U.S. and Western media may not have been paying attention to the threat doesn’t mean it [was] non-existent.”
The problem for the United States is that the governments it’s partnered with in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan have motives that only sometimes coincide with American security concerns – what Miller called a “back-end problem” in the terror fight.
“If you can’t fix the back end completely” – which he said is near-impossible given the tribal nature and weak and often corrupt central governments the U.S. has partnered with to fight al Qaeda, which necessarily tends to operate in areas outside of those governments’ reach – “the last line of defense becomes ensuring these folks don’t get into position where they’re allowed to do grievous damage and harm in the U.S,” Miller said.
The embassy closure came a day after Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, made a surprise visit to the country Saturday, where he reportedly met with President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen is where alleged Northwest Airlines flight 253 bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is believed to have travelled to obtain from al Qaeda the explosives he tried to detonate aboard the Detroit-bound airplane.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day attack, a link Obama acknowledged for the first time Saturday in his weekly address, where he also stressed that the administration had been keyed in on Yemen prior to that attack.
“As President,” Obama said, “I've made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government—training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al Qaeda terrorists.”
The most recent attack on the U.S. embassy, in September, 2008, killed 19, including an 18-year-old American woman and six of the attackers, though no diplomats or members of the mission were hurt. Al Qaeda in Yemen took credit for that assault.
On Thursday, the U.S. embassy had sent out a Security Warden Message encouraging U.S. citizens there “to follow good security practices and maintain situational awareness.” The message cited al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s “threats against Westerners working in embassies and elsewhere, characterizing them as ‘unbelievers’ and ‘crusaders.’”
As Democrats and Republicans continued to spar over Obama’s handling of terrorism, one question focused on whether the administration had focused enough on Yemen as an emerging terror center.
On Saturday, a senior administration official stressed that "we have made Yemen a priority over the course of this year,” echoing language used by Obama in his weekly address. The official said that “Gen. Petraeus briefed John Brennan on the visit, and during the course of his consultations with the president, Brennan updated the president on Gen. Petraeus’s productive visit.”
Several announcements on Saturday and Friday seemed intended to reinforce that narrative. Yemen reportedly deployed several hundred troops to al Qaeda’s strongholds in the nation’s eastern provinces of Marib and Jouf.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for an international conference on Jan. 28 on how best to counter radicalization in Yemen, as well as a commitment to fund, along with the U.S., the Yemeni police and coast guard’s counter-terror efforts. Pirates in the Gulf of Aden have taken four ships in the past week for ransom.
On Friday, Petraeus told reporters in Baghdad that U.S. counterterrorism aid to Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world, ''will more than double this coming year.''
The location of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, Yemen received $67 million in publicly disclosed training and support funds from the Pentagon in the current fiscal year, up from just $4.6 million in FY2006 and second only to the $112 million received by Pakistan.
America has already stepped up its military cooperation with Saleh’s government, whose influence is mostly contained to the capital, including a U.S.-aided air strike on December 24 apparently directed at al Qaeda leadership there. There were numerous reports that that attack employed drones such as those the U.S. has used to target terrorists in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We are continuing to press and maintain pressure on al Qaeda in Yemen,” said Brennan on Sunday. “There a number of al Qaeda operatives in Yemen who are no longer alive as of last month.”
“This is something you saw us do quite often in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and during what I call the first phase of the U.S. war in Yemen. This is not necessarily that surprising,” said Johnsen. “Clearly, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is looking to retaliate for the December 17 and December 24 strikes. It’s really not a matter of whether they’re going to try to retaliate, but when.”
After the Bush administration's invasion of Afghanistan, some of the remaining al Qaeda membership there scattered to other safe havens, including Yemen. The Bush administration had made Yemen and the Horn of Africa an early focus of its counter-terror efforts, establishing a military base in Djibouti in 2003 as the headquarters for the U.S. military in that region.
Nearly half the remaining inmates held at Guantanamo Bay are from Yemen, and the instability of the central government and increased presence of al Qaeda there have emerged as major obstacles Obama’s pledge to close the prison.
Brennan argued on NBC that “the last administration transferred over 530 Guantanamo detainees abroad. In this administration, we have transferred about 42… In the case of Yemen, we have in fact-- sent back seven individuals. [The] previous administration sent back 13 to Yemen. Of the recent batch that we sent back, about six-- many of them are in custody within the Yemeni system right now.”
At least two of the detainees transferred there by the Bush administration ended up rejoining Al Qaeda in leadership roles after their release.
While POLITICO, the New York Times and others reported last week that the White House had decided not to release anyone else to Yemen, Brennan said Sunday that such cases would still be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
“Some of these individuals are going to be transferred back to Yemen at the right time, at the right pace and the right way, he said. “We want to make sure we are able to close Guantanamo. Guantanamo has been used a propaganda tool by al Qaeda and others.”
"There has been no blanket halt of transfers just as there's been no blanket authorization of transfers," a senior administration said Sunday.
Obama and his top national security aides are sifting through the initial findings of Brennan’s reviews before a high-level meeting in the situation room on Tuesday.
In the meantime, the White House dispatched Brennan to appear on several of the Sunday talk shows.
On CNN, Brennan conceded that “clearly the system didn’t work. We had a problem in terms of why Abdulmutallab got on the plane.”
But he stressed that “There was no smoking gun out there… We had bits and pieces of information.”
“It was not like 9/11,” Brennan said of the failure of the intelligence process to flag Abdulmutallab before the attack. “There was no indication that any of these agencies were intentionally holding back information. There were lapses and human errors… [but] there wasn’t an effort to try and conceal information."
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) Sunday called Brennan’s appearances “Janet Napolitano, part two.”
I have not been critical from the start about individual mistakes,” King told POLITICO, “but when Napolitano said the system worked and Brennan today said this wasn’t a warning signal, a smoking gun” – when Abdulmutallab’s father spoke to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s extremism – “that means that they haven’t learned. I’m hoping they’ll learn but today wasn’t very encouraging.”
“We have to do a better job of commanding the whole,” said Miller, who called stopping extremists from positioning themselves to do harm to the homeland a “front-end” concern.
“Not just connecting the dots. To connect them, first you’ve got to be able to identify them in real time to have a realistic chance.”