x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

US to expand Yemeni counter-terrorism training

Boosting Yemeni counter-terrorism effort seen as critical by US national security leaders to combat al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula.

WASHINGTON // Faced with an increasingly alarming threat from al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, the US military will begin a new training program with Yemen's counterterrorism unit so it can move against militants believed to be plotting attacks on the US from safe havens there.

The effort will mark the first time the US has trained the counter-terrorism unit, which has traditionally focused on protecting Yemen's capital, according to a senior defence official. Under the plan, the training would begin in the next few months, and the Yemenis could more than double the size of their counterterror force, which now numbers about 300.

Cooperation with Yemen is considered critical by US national security leaders to combat al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

So far, US defence officials said there has been no impact on US-Yemen military cooperation as a result of the public protests, and Yemen remains committed to its operations against AQAP. As an example, Yemen has created what one official called a "hard mission force" within the counterterror unit that they want trained to do more precise strikes.

The new training program would expand US military assistance to Yemen, where AQAP has planned and launched several attack against the US, including the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day 2009 and the failed mail bomb plot involving cargo planes last summer.

Senior US intelligence officials told Congress on Thursday that AQAP is committed to obtaining weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological agents. The group is also still focused on inspiring homegrown American militants to launch their own attacks from within the US, they said.

The director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, Michael Leiter said during a hearing on Thursday: "The likelihood of obtaining a biological weapon is more likely than obtaining or producing a yield-producing nuclear device. I do think that the smaller-scale lone wolf attack with conventional weapons still stands out as the far more likely event."

US officials have repeatedly warned that AQAP is the most significant and immediate threat to the US, largely through smaller-scale attacks. Leaders of AQAP post persistent threats online saying they intend to continue to plot and execute attacks, and urge others to do the same.

Anwar al Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric who is believed to be the inspiration for the Christmas Day attack and a growing participant in assault planning, is reportedly hiding in Yemen.

The new training program in Yemen will cost about US$75 million (Dh275m), the defence official said. The goal is to create a national counter-terror unit that will be better able and equipped to travel out to tribal regions and ferret out insurgents hiding there.

To date the US. military, with about 100 trainers rotating in and out of Yemen, has been working with the country's special operations forces and their military, particularly aviation units.

The new programme would become part of that overall training effort, but officials believe it will provide a critical step toward getting at militants in safe havens, particularly in the Abyan and Shabwah provinces.

Future spending totals are in flux as Congress has not yet approved the 2011 defence budget.

Military transport has been a persistent challenge for the Yemenis, but just in the last month, the US delivered four Huey helicopters to Yemen and has been training the aviation units. The aircraft will help the Yemeni forces get troops, equipment and supplies to combat outposts in the more remote tribal regions.

The helicopters will eventually allow Yemen to do more operations that involve precise strikes with a small number of troops, the defence official said.

The official said that the US is assessing now how it can best help Yemen battle AQAP. The counter-terror unit expansion is a key element of that, along with deciding how many military outposts are needed in the tribal regions, and how big the counterterror force should be.

The overall US effort also includes economic and governance assistance.

Officials also say that while AQAP is one of the most active al Qa'da franchises, there has been little insurgent travel between Yemen and Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants are believed to be hiding.

Persistent assaults by the US and Pakistan, including an escalating campaign of drone strikes into the Pakistani border region, have put pressure on core al Qa'eda, making it more difficult for its members to travel or communicate with others.