Yemen: US steps up covert war

Sunday, November 14, 2010
Yemeni soldier during military training. Sana’a, January 12. Photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo/Flickr

The US has stepped up flights by pilotless drones and increased the deployment of special forces and CIA operatives in the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen. The US military and CIA have been covertly operating in Yemen since at least 2002.

The November 7 Washington Post quoted unnamed US officials as saying that drones operating over Yemen now included Hellfire missile-equipped Predators. The article said that “up to 100” extra US “Special Operations force trainers” and an unspecified number of “additional CIA teams” were being deployed.

The pretext for this rise in aggression was two parcel bombs mailed from Yemen to Jewish organisations in Chicago that were discovered on cargo planes in Dubai and Britain on October 29, after tip-offs from Saudi intelligence.

The bombs were mailed with a sender’s address: that of medical student Hanan al-Samawi, who was detained with her mother until Yemeni police concluded she was the victim of identity theft.

The US has accused 28-year-old Yemen-based Saudi exile Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri of being the “master bomb maker” responsible for the parcel bombs and other recent attacks.


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As the threat posed by networks of individual terrorists is used as justification for bloody wars, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media tends to build up suspected terrorist “masterminds” into evil geniuses that appear to have walked out of a James Bond movie.

However, al-Asiri seems to more resemble a villain in an Austin Powers film, if the outcomes of the attacks attributed to him are anything to go by. The plots he is accused of masterminding may have been ingenious, but none have succeeded.

Best known is the Christmas Day 2009 attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The bomb, which was sewn into his underwear, only succeeded in damaging his groin.

Achieving worldwide fame as the “underpants bomber” was probably not the notoriety the would-be martyr was hoping for.

Even more bizarre, if more gruesome, was the August 27, 2009, attempt by al-Asiri’s brother, Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, to assassinate Saudi counterintelligence chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud.

Before meeting bin Nayef, Abdullah Hassan stuffed a pound of plastic explosives and a remote control detonator up his arse. He only succeeded in blowing himself in half, allowing the Saudi prince to escape.

There is a danger one of al-Asiri’s plots may succeed, but greater US aggression in Yemen will not help.

In the past five years, thousands have been killed in Pakistan by US drone strikes targeting terrorists. Analysing strikes between January and July, DNAIndia.com reported on August 19 that, “for each terrorist killed, 33 civilians also had to die”.

The drone strikes have not, however, reduced terrorism. In 2009, 3021 people in Pakistan were killed in terrorist attacks, 48% more than in 2008, the January 11 Guardian reported.

In Iraq, terrorist attacks occur almost daily, despite being almost unheard-of before the 2003 invasion.

Al Jazeera reported on November 1 that US military aid to Yemen has increased from US$5 million in 2006 to $155 million in 2010. In September, a military aid package of $1.2 billion over five years was offered — 10 times the amount of US non-military aid to a country where half the population lives on less than $2 per day.

However, the Yemeni government faces an insurgency among the Zaidi Shi’ite religious minority in the north of the country and a secular secessionist movement in the south. The government has not prioritised the fight against 100-200 AQAP militants hiding in the country’s more remote regions.

The AQAP mostly fights the Saudi monarchy and, to a lesser extent, the West.

In November 2002, a US drone attack near the Yemeni capital Sana’a killed six people. Since then, the extent of US military activity in Yemen has been unclear due to its covert nature.

US special forces and CIA operatives are “embedded” with Yemeni forces, and US surveillance drones acquire targets for the Yemeni air force to bomb.

Between October 2009 and January 2010, Saudi forces crossed the border to join the fighting against the Zaidi rebels. Press TV reported on December 14 that US jets took part in the Saudi attacks.

The Western media has tended to conflate the Zaidi rebels and southern secessionists with AQAP, or suggest they are allies. But Al Qaeda’s sectarian Sunni Islamism would make cooperation unlikely with either the Shi’ite or secular opposition.

On December 17, 2009, a missile attack in Yemen killed 55 people. Amnesty International said that among the victims were 21 women, 14 children and one confirmed AQAP member.

Western media initially reported this as a Yemeni government operation. However, on June 6 Amnesty released images of US cluster bomblets and a Tomahawk cruise missile propulsion unit, proving it was a US strike.

“In June and July, the AQAP announced that it was planning a ‘catastrophe for the enemies of God’ in response to the Abyan attack”, IPS reported on November 10.

More US strikes on Yemen will only encourage more plots by Yemen-based bomb makers.

From GLW issue 861