Sanaa, Yemen (UPI) Dec 17, 2009
Yemeni authorities' claim that 34 al-Qaida operatives were killed by government forces in ground and airstrikes indicates a major triumph for the Sanaa government's on-again, off-again counter-terrorism efforts.
But with the bulk of Yemen's poorly trained military forces pinned down fighting a stubborn Shiite rebellion in the north, the operations against a resurgent al-Qaida suggest that Saudi Arabia's intelligence services, now operating in Yemen to bolster the beleaguered government, probably played a key role.
The United States may also have been involved, since the Americans, like the Saudis, have been pressuring Sanaa to crack down hard on al-Qaida as it rebuilds its strength in Yemen's hinterland.
Yemen's record of action against the jihadists has been patchy at best since 2001.
Al-Qaida has penetrated Yemen's intelligence and security services deeply. There is considerable support for it among Yemen's influential Islamic conservatives who dominate the power elite in a country that is Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland.
Saudi Arabia's two principal intelligence services set up stations in Sanaa in the summer, ostensibly to help combat the tribal rebellion on the kingdom's southern border.
Yemen's government is faced with crisis at every hand -- the northern revolt, a growing secessionist movement in the socialist-dominated south, al-Qaida's resurgence and a collapsing, drought-battered economy that is stirring social unrest.
Riyadh fears that if the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose writ barely runs beyond the capital Sanaa and other major urban areas, cannot keep the state together, al-Qaida will exploit the chaos to unleash a new offensive against Saudi Arabia.
The presence in Yemen of Saudi Arabia's main intelligence services, the General Intelligence Presidency, which is primarily responsible for foreign operations, and the General Security Service run by the Interior Ministry, brings a formidable force to bear on the jihadists and stiffens Yemen's suspect intelligence apparatus.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been gradually escalating its operations against Saudi Arabia over the last year, culminating in an abortive Aug. 27 attempt to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz, who headed the successful campaign against al-Qaida in the kingdom.
U.S. and other intelligence sources have been warning for months that al-Qaida was moving experienced field commanders and other mid-level operatives to Yemen, plus lawless Somalia across the Gulf of Aden, from Afghanistan and Pakistan as pressure on the jihadists built up in that theater.
This has been borne out to some extent by the recent capture in Yemen of a key al-Qaida financier, Hassan Hussein bin Alwan, a Saudi who arrived in Yemen via Oman from Pakistan in April. Saudi intelligence played an important role in that operation.
Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Somali and prominent al-Qaida figure who was assassinated with several companions by helicopter-borne U.S. Navy SEALs in southern Somalia on Sept. 14, was a key figure in the jihadist shift to the Red Sea/Horn of Africa region, according to regional intelligence sources.
They noted that many al-Qaida units in the AFPAK theater once led by Arab veterans are now commanded by non-Arabs, many of them from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian republics.
"The hardened fighters have moved to Yemen," one source commented. "They're using their resources to set up a new conflict."
The Americans have been pushing Saleh, who has ruled for more than 40 years through his alliances with Yemen's powerful Islamist tribal leaders, to move forcefully against al-Qaida as it has rebuilt its strength.
But he has dragged his feet because he cannot afford, now least of all, to alienate his tribal allies if he wants to stay in power.
Now, with the Saudis seemingly making a lot of the running in hunting down al-Qaida and Washington cracking the whip, Saleh probably had little choice but to confront al-Qaida head-on.
The unprecedented scale of the anti-jihadist operations in Sanaa, the nearby Arhab region and in the southern province of Abyan, an Islamist stronghold, suggests that Saleh may have tried to deliver a knockout blow, citing the threat of at least eight imminent suicide attacks.
Saleh sent at least 12 attack jets to bomb an al-Qaida training camp near the Abyan village of al-Maajala, 300 miles southeast of the capital. They are the first known airstrikes the government has sent against the jihadists.
Up to 34 militants were reported killed. Other jets hit targets in Arhab.
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