Yemeni foreign minister rejects US intervention in al-Qaeda fight

Yemen’s foreign minister rejects possibility of US intervention in its battle against al-Qaeda, suggesting fears that US support might do more harm than good. Aid agencies warn of return to war in southern Sudan. Indian security forces bring day-long siege in Srinagar to an end with death of two militants. US contractor accused of being government spy by Cuban authorities. All this and more in today's security update.
Josephine Whitaker
7 January 2010

Yemeni foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi has rejected the possibility of direct US intervention in his government’s fight against al-Qaeda, in a television interview with CNN this week. However, the minister acknowledged the need for regional cooperation with the US and other states, and called on the US to provide the government with “the technical know-how, with the equipment, with the intelligence information and with the firepower" to combat al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni government has stepped up its operations against al-Qaeda since the attempted attack on Christmas Day by an alleged al-Qaeda militant who may have trained in Yemen. A raid launched earlier this week killed two militants and allowed several foreign embassies, including the US, French and British embassies, to reopen after closing earlier this week due to an undisclosed security threat. Yemeni security forces have also been dispatched to four other provinces over the past few days, and have captured at least eight militants and one commander in the course of their operations.

US defence and counter terrorism officials also announced that they have been quietly supplying the Yemeni government military equipment, intelligence and training to support its fight against al-Qaeda, although they did not specify the exact nature or duration of this support.

The openSecurity verdict: The crucial question is whether external military support or intervention will do more harm than good in Yemen. In the wake of the attempted Christmas day bombing on a US-bound flight, in which it has emerged that the Nigerian bomber Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab may have trained in the country and the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombing, all eyes are on Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the middle east. Several countries concerned with battling al-Qaeda have rushed to increase their aid, and specifically their military aid to Yemen. The US, for example has increased its military aid to Yemen almost seven times since 2006, to $70m this year, while the UK has increased its aid four-fold since 2007.

International concern has been mounting for several months now, even before the attempted bombing on Christmas Day catapulted Yemen into the war on terror spotlight, that Yemen is a failing, or even a failed, state, and therefore an ideal safe haven for al-Qaeda. The US, Europe, Saudi Arabia and others are increasingly fearful that al-Qaeda may take hold in Yemen, and spread its operations to the neighboring kingdom, the biggest oil-exporter in the world. Such fears might seem valid when one considers that the Sana’a government is battling for its life on at least three fronts: not only is it fighting against al-Qaeda, but it is also facing a rebellion in the north and a strong separatist movement in the south.

Subscribers to this view are already spawning theories of a possible link between Yemeni and Somali militants, moving virtually unchecked between the two countries through the lawless Gulf of Aden. Al Shabab, the Somali armed islamist group, played on such fears, vowing to cross the straits and defend Yemen against any American military intervention there.

In this context, one might wonder why Yemen has rejected the possibility of American intervention. Qirbi’s statement indicates a desire for the Yemeni government to distance itself from the ‘war on terror’ and its discontents. The wisdom of such a move becomes apparent when one considers the impact of US support for anti-terrorism measures in Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example. By permitting US-supported counter-terrorism operations, governments in both states have alienated their constituents, particularly when foreign operations result in civilian casualties.

Airstrikes conducted by the Yemeni air force in Shebwa on 24 Decemeber, with suspected but unknown levels of US involvement, are reported to have led to several civilian deaths. A report in The Guardian suggested US and UK support for Yemeni counter-terrorism operations prior to the Christmas day bomb attempt may have expanded a domestic constituency of support for al-Qaeda.

Yemen itself had already begun its offensive against al-Qaeda long before the abortive Christmas day attack. US support to strengthen the government’s capacity and indigenous efforts to combat al-Qaeda should be welcomed. However, the concern remains that US attempts to ‘support’ the Yemeni government will actually undermine its efforts by discrediting central government’s legitimacy. The government already struggles to exercise control outside of the capital, and there are regions in both north and south that are virtually lawless. Incidentally, it is precisely this lack of control that so worries the US and Saudi Arabia.

Another concern is that international aid to Yemen will become focused exclusively on counterinsurgency operations, ignoring the wider demands of development. The UK, for example, has not specified what proportion of its £105m between 2009 and 2011 aid is to be spent on military support, but it is safe to assume that a large proportion of this will go to already existing efforts to build a counter-terrorism unit. Similarly, the US has pledged $121m over the next three years for development aid, in comparison to $70m for military aid in 2010 alone. Given that Yemen is arguably so susceptible to an al-Qaeda presence due to its crippling poverty combined with a lack of political authority, the neglect of development issues is all the more perilous. As winter worsens the conditions in Yemen’s internally displaced peoples’ camps, those governments concerned that Yemen is failing need to think more carefully about where they direct their aid.

Aid agencies warn of return to war in southern Sudan

Ten international aid agencies today released a report warning of the potential collapse of the peace accord which brought an end the 22-year-old Sudanese civil war that killed almost two million and displaced over 4 million.

The report, released ahead of the fifth anniversary of the signing of the accord between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Sudanese government, is entitled “Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan”. It draws attention to a “lethal cocktail” of rising violence, chronic poverty and political tensions that have created a dire humanitarian situation in southern Sudan over past year, in which 350,000 people were displaced and over 2,500 killed – more than have been killed this year in the far more publicized Darfur conflict, in western Sudan.

The report highlights potential flashpoints in the coming year, such as the country’s first multiparty elections in 24 years, a referendum in which southerners will vote on whether to secede from the north, and rising tensions between President Omar el-Bashir’s National Congress Party and the SPLM. Competition for increasingly scarce resources and control over the country’s oil wealth are also likely to lead to conflict.

The reports’ authors underline the fear that a return to conflict would not only worsen the humanitarian situation for south Sudanese, but might destabilize central and eastern Africa, as the previous civil war did. While international commentators acknowledge that the situation in Sudan is deteriorating, many believe that the strong international presence in the country is reason for optimism.

Srinagar siege brought to an end by Indian security forces

Indian security forces have stormed a hotel in Srinagar, capital of disputed Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing two militants and bringing to an end a 22-hour siege, according to local officials. The attack is said to have left two dead and at least eight injured. The militants had taken refuge in the hotel in Srinagar’s busy Lal Chowk area, after throwing grenades and opening fire in Srinagar’s main bazaar yesterday.

Responsibility for the attack is unclear. Local government officials initially reported that the militants belonged to banned militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba, the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks, but another group, Jamiat-ul-Mujahedin, later claimed responsibility.

This attack is the latest in a series of assaults and ceasefire violations which would appear to contradict Indian claims of a dramatic decline in violence over the past two years. Despite recent unrest, such as a clash between suspected Muslim militants and Indian security forces earlier this week, which left at least seven dead, and a suicide bombing at a military school in Pakistani Kashmir which killed three, Indian Kashmir’s chief minister marked his one year anniversary in office by pledging  to reduce the number of security forces in this troubled region if violence continues to decrease.

US contractor arrested as spy in Cuba

An unnamed US national detained at Havana airport over a month ago has been accused by Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban parliament, of working for “the American secret services”. Alarcón described the incident as another example of the US’s “privatisation of war”.

According to sources in Washington, the man was an employee of Development Alternatives Inc., an independent, Maryland-based development organization which claims to be implementing a government programme aimed at promoting democracy and civil society in Cuba.

The incident suggests that Cuban-US relations have not changed as dramatically as some had hoped since Barack Obama took office a year ago. The same suspicions that prevailed during the Bush administration and before are still harboured by both sides. Cuban President Raul Castro accused the detained man of illegally supplying opposition groups with communications equipment, and  repeated allegations that the US is trying to subvert the revolution. Meanwhile, US officials and media dismiss all such allegations against their nationals as typical of a paranoid repressive government.

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