After years of pressure from the United States, Yemen will embark on a major U.S.-backed initiative next year and build four new branches of counterterrorism units located in the provinces of Mareb, Shabwa, Abyan, and Hadramawt. “This is the next phase in the war on terrorism – we are bringing the fight to al-Qaeda,” Mohammed Albasha, Yemen’s spokesman from its American embassy, said over the weekend. While Yemen already has U.S.-funded anti-terrorism units, this is the first time the units will be based in al-Qaeda strongholds.
Yemen is home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, an increasingly deadly offshoot of the al-Qaeda network. According to John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, AQAP poses a greater threat to Americans than Osama bin Laden’s group in Pakistan.
U.S.-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is a key member of AQAP.
The Yemeni government is the United States’ greatest ally in fighting AQAP, but Washington has often complained of a lack of determination from Yemen to do so, even after the U.S. gave Sana’a nearly $250 million over the last five years and is said to be giving the same amount in 2011 alone. Indeed, according to one Wikileaked cable, in 2009 Yemen diverted its U.S.-funded counterterrorism units trained to fight AQAP to battle the Houthis, a Shi’ite rebel group in the northern province of Sa’ada, stretching those special forces thin.
That Yemen is building four new counterterror units in the heart of al-Qaeda territory is a step forward for the country and American efforts there. However, the U.S. must ensure that aid to the country is being used for its stated purpose. Analysts have long said that Sana’a’s priorities do not coincide with Washington’s. So before the U.S. floods the country with millions more, it should take steps to make sure the Yemeni government’s priorities are in line with its own.