By James Blitz in London and Daniel Dombey in Washington
March 25 2011
Western governments are in the throes of a large military operation over Libya but the development in the Middle East that is concerning national security officials in London and Washington this weekend is the possible collapse of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government in Yemen.
Yemen has been the source of some of the most serious terrorist plots directed at the US and Britain over the past two years. They have been fomented by al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, or AQAP, whose guiding force is the preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who is, thought to be hiding in the south-east of the country.
The fear in western capitals is that, while Mr Saleh has never been an easy ally for the US and Britain in the fight against terrorism, his fall may take Yemen into civil war, allowing AQAP to expand its operations in the country.
“Combating AQAP has never been top of Saleh’s to-do list because he has faced so many other issues, such as water shortages, unemployment and a southern secessionist rebellion,” says a British government official. “But the fear is that if Saleh goes, AQAP will have more space to operate within the country.”
AQAP is the product of a 2009 merger between Saudi and Yemeni al-Qaeda cells, some of whose members had formerly been held in Guantánamo Bay and Yemeni prisons.
It is still not seen in the US and UK as a threat on the scale of the jihadist terrorism coming out of the Pakistani tribal areas. But AQAP and Mr Awlaki proved their seriousness when they emerged as the masterminds behind an attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas day 2009.
British counter-terrorism officials believe that Mr Awlaki was responsible for the cargo aircraft bombs that were sent from Yemen to Chicago in October 2010.
The devices were made of an explosive, known as pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, that is extremely difficult to detect.
Mr Awlaki was also the inspiration behind Nidal Malik Hasan, a US army major charged with killing 13 people at a US military base in Fort Hood in 2009.
The US has identified AQAP as the biggest direct threat to the US mainland.
There is particular concern at the way in which AQAP’s chief bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi, has developed explosive devices that cannot be detected by airport scanners. In August 2009 a bomb hidden in the body of Mr Asiri’s 23-year-old brother narrowly failed to kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi intelligence chief.
The White House has steered clear of personal criticism of Mr Saleh, even as it signals it is preparing for life without him.
“Whatever the leadership in the future looks like for Yemen, that’s got to be decided by the people of Yemen and not by the people of the US,” said Jay Carney, White House spokesman, this week.
“We do not build our policy in any country around a single person. And we obviously will look forward to having a solid relationship to the leader of Yemen.”
Source: The Financial Times