More Yemen troops pursue Qaeda

Hundreds sent into strongholds in eastern region

By Ahmed Al-Haj and Lee Keath
Associated Press / January 3, 2010

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SANA Yemen - Yemen deployed several hundred extra troops to two mountainous eastern provinces that are Al Qaeda’s main strongholds in the country and where the suspected would-be Christmas airplane bomber may have visited, security officials said yesterday.

The reinforcements, aiming to beef up the military’s presence in a remote region where the government has little control, were Yemen’s latest move in a stepped-up campaign to combat Al Qaeda.

The United States plans to more than double its counterterrorism aid to the impoverished, fragmented Arab nation in the coming year to boost the fight.

General David Petraeus, the US general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who announced the increased aid, arrived in Yemen yesterday and met with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Yemeni government official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

The confrontation with Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen gained new urgency after the failed attempt on Christmas Day to bomb a US airliner headed to Detroit.

President Obama said yesterday that Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen was behind the attempt. A 23-year-old Nigerian accused in the attack, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has told US investigators he received training and instructions from Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

US and Yemeni investigators have been trying to track Abdulmutallab’s steps in Yemen, which he visited from August until Dec. 7. He was there ostensibly to study Arabic in Sana, but he disappeared for much of that time.

Yemeni security officials said Abdulmutallab may have traveled to the Marif or Jouf provinces - remote, mountainous regions east of the capital where Al Qaeda’s presence is the strongest - though the officials cautioned that it was still not certain where he met up with members of the terror group.

Yemen’s information minister, Hassan al-Louzi, said Abdulmutallab’s movements are “under investigation. They are trying to uncover where he went, who he met with.’’

The security officials also said Abdulmutallab may have been in contact by e-mail with a radical Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaqi, during his stay in Yemen. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Awlaqi, who is in hiding in Yemen, is a popular preacher among Al Qaeda sympathizers, calling for Muslims to fight in jihad, or holy war, against the West. Awlaqi earlier exchanged dozens of e-mails with US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused gunman in the Nov. 5 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in which 13 people were killed.

On Friday, the Yemeni military sent hundreds of extra troops to Marib and Jouf provinces, the Yemeni security officials said.

Al Qaeda has killed a number of top security officials in the provinces in recent months, underscoring Sana’s lack of control there. Tribes hold sway in the region, and many of them are discontented with the central government and have given refuge to Al Qaeda fighters, both Yemenis and other Arabs coming from Saudi Arabia or war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yemen has carried out a series of air strikes and raids against Qaeda hide-outs in nearby provinces last month. The strikes, Yemen’s heaviest in years, targeted what officials said were top leaders in the terror network’s branch there. But the intensified campaign has not yet reached into the strongholds of Marib and Jouf.

The assaults were being made as the United States beefed up counterterrorism aid to the impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, providing $67 million in training and support last year. Only Pakistan got more, some $112 million.

Yemen yesterday welcomed a call by Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain to hold an international conference on Jan. 28 to devise ways to counter radicalization in the country, the poorest in the Arab world. Brown said he hopes the meeting will coordinate donor efforts to help the government of Yemen and identify counterterrorism needs there.

Louzi, the information minister, said Yemen will be “an active participant’’ in the conference.

He said the gathering should address “all aspects’’ of the terror issue, including the widespread poverty and underdevelopment that Yemeni officials say fuel Al Qaeda’s spread in the country.

“Whoever wants to build Yemen’s stability and build its democratic and modern values must help it, and not only in security but in development,’’ he said. “The most important problems in Yemen are economic at their root.’’