Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why Yemen claims role in US drone strike on cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

By Cheryl Sullivan, Staff writer / May 7, 2011

President Saleh's government, besieged by protests and clinging to power, is hoping to prove its usefulness as the US pursues radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and other terror suspects in Yemen.

This week’s US attempt to kill a radical Islamic cleric in Yemen, via a drone attack, indicates that the Obama administration is capitalizing on political unrest there to extract intelligence about the terrorist group Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

The drone strikes on Thursday, aimed at American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, missed their intended target but killed two brothers affiliated with the Islamist terrorist group, after Mr. Awlaki and a traveling companion switched vehicles with them. The US has been targeting Awlaki since the 2009 “Christmas Day underwear bomber” plot, one of the attempted attacks on the US in which officials say he had a role.

Unlike the attack in Pakistan earlier in the week that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the US strikes in Yemen were conducted with the full knowledge and cooperation of the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Indeed, the Yemeni government is asserting that it provided the US with key intelligence about Awlaki.

“The Yemeni government gave the US authorities vital details of Awlaki’s whereabouts … days ago,” a senior Yemeni security official told The Wall Street Journal.

The burst of cooperation appears to be a bid from the Saleh government for greater US support as it struggles to hold onto power. Yemen is among the Arab states that have seen mass protests this year from citizens demanding greater freedom – and an end to decades of rule by autocratic leaders. Mr. Saleh, who has led Yemen since a military coup in 1978, now finds himself clinging to office.

A US official told the Journal that information about Awlaki has indeed been more forthcoming since the domestic uprising began – and that Saleh has sought to win greater US political support in return. The US has backed a proposal by Gulf Arab mediators to ease Saleh out of power within a month – a deal that Saleh himself now appears to be resisting.

If Awlaki has become a pawn in Saleh’s bid to stay in power, it’s not clear what the US would do for Yemen's president in return. The US has expressed concern that Yemen, already overseen by a weak government, could become even more of a haven for Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the Obama administration now considers to be the most active terrorist organization.

The Saleh government is emphasizing that risk. A local Yemeni security official told AFP that Al Qaeda fighters in south Yemen on Saturday raided a farm owned by the president. One jihadist was killed and two wounded in the ensuing firefight, the official said. He said armed men had also launched a mortar attack on a riot police post, an army camp, and a telecommunications building in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province, but caused no casualties.

Still, the US would be taking a risk, too, to stick with Saleh in the face of the popular uprising, in which some 150 people have died since January. The Monitor’s Erik Stier reported this week that “with Saleh's regime's pushed to the brink of collapse, Yemen is in a poor position to rein in extremist activity – including the sort of retaliatory attacks against which the US is seeking to guard its citizens.”

Whatever the long-term political outcome of Saleh’s newly robust cooperation with US forces in seeking out AQAP, the US acted quickly after obtaining information about Awlaki's whereabouts. According to The Wall Street Journal account, on Thursday “the U.S. launched two separate attacks within 45 minutes aimed at Mr. Awlaki in the southern province of Shebwa.”

The three rockets in the first strike missed the pickup truck in which Awlaki and a Saudi were traveling, the report said. Two Yemeni brothers known to harbor militants rushed to the scene, and Awlaki switched vehicles with them, leaving the brothers in the pickup. A single drone then hit the pickup truck, killing the brothers, and Awlaki and the Saudi escaped in the other vehicle, according to the report.

The US is not known to have attacked AQAP inside Yemen since last May.

Awlaki, born in New Mexico, is believed to have been living in Yemen since 2004. Though he is an American citizen, the Obama administration has taken the unusual step of adding him to the CIA target list, saying he is tied to several terrorist attempts, including the Fort Hood mass shooting in Texas in November 2009, the Christmas Day airline bomb plot in 2009, and the Times Square car bomb plot in May 2010. He is said to be a senior, but not a top, AQAP leader. American operatives see him as an inspirational figure who recruits English-speaking militants to attack US interests at home and abroad. He disseminates his sermons and anti-American views widely on the Internet, where he has a large following.

Protests paralyze cities across Yemen

SANAA, Yemen, May 7 (UPI) -- Protests, shutdowns and sit-ins were reported across Yemen Saturday as the opposition continued its campaign to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In Sanaa, the capital, stores were closed for almost 5 hours, the Yemen Post reported.

In Aden and Lahj, government offices, universities and schools as well as commercial activity came to a halt.

The opposition has called for civil disobedience actions on Saturdays and Wednesdays until Saleh gives in.

The Gulf Cooperation Council of neighboring Arab states submitted a fourth version of its plan to resolve the crisis to Yemen's ruling and opposition parties Friday.

The GCC secretary-general said 30 leaders from the two sides would sign onto a deal after Saleh refused to sign it as president. He said he would sign an accord as head of his General People's Congress instead.

Last month Saleh and the opposition endorsed a GCC proposal for him to quit in a month in favor of a new vice president, but protesters are demanding he go immediately.

Yemeni protesters call on Gulf to withdraw power transition deal

Sana'a, May 7, 2011 - Protesters in Yemen, who are demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, called Saturday on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to withdraw a power transition plan aimed at ending the unrest in the country.

In a statement, the organizing committee for Yemeni Youth Popular Uprising said the 'does not respond to the ultimate goals of protesters to topple president Saleh immediately and send him on trial.'

Protesters also called on the international community, especially the United States and the European Union, to refrain from intervening against the will of the people and their right to determine their future.

'If our demands are not met, we will expand protests outside protests camps to compel the regime to stand aside as the last phase of our peaceful uprising,' said Tawakul Karaman, a member of the committee.

Earlier this week, Saleh backtracked on statements indicating he had accepted the Gulf proposal to step down and transfer his powers to his vice president in a government of national unity.

The GCC says it will continue to work on getting both the opposition and Saleh to sign the deal as a solution to preserve stability and security in Yemen.

'We will not change our stance regarding the initiative and will wait for the Gulf mediators either to press the president to sign it or withdraw it,' Mohammed Qahtan, a spokesman for the opposition coalition Joint Meetings Parties JMP told the German Press Agency dpa.

Tens of thousands of people have been staging demonstrations across Yemen, calling on Saleh to leave power.

Protesters have repeatedly said they disapprove of the deal, which guarantees Saleh immunity from legal prosecution. They say they will not stop demonstrating until Saleh is also tried over the deaths of more than 100 protesters.

Under the proposed deal, the president would also retain the right to remain as head of the ruling party.

Yemen youth protest leaders want Gulf plan withdrawn

Sat May 7, 2011

SANAA (Reuters) - Youth groups leading protests to oust Yemen's long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh called on Gulf Arab states Saturday to withdraw a plan which has failed so far to ease him from power.

Yemen's main opposition said Friday the deal, proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to end months of unrest, had been modified to allow Saleh to sign as party leader rather than president, a condition that nearly derailed the deal last week.

"We call on the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council to stop any initiatives that result in alienating the Yemeni people," the groups, under the banner Youth Revolution, said.

"We call on the United States, the European Union and the permanent Security Council members to assume their moral responsibility and stop ... meddling directed against the will of the Yemeni people to ensure freedom and democracy," the statement signed by the Organizational Committee of the Popular Youth Revolution said.

The plan requires the Yemeni leader, until recently backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States as a bulwark against al Qaeda and regional instability, to resign 30 days after signing.

Critics saw Saleh's refusal to sign as president as a clear sign that the shrewd political survivor had no intention of stepping down quickly.

Sceptical opposition leaders said Friday it appeared the GCC had acceded to demands by the ruling party.

Gulf Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Yemen's neighbour, are eager to see peace return to Yemen, a poor state struggling to deal with internal rebellion and home to al Qaeda's active Arabian Peninsula branch.

Many worry that Yemen that could quickly spiral into further violence -- half of its 23 million people own a gun.

Protests for and against Saleh attracted large crowds in the capital Friday. In cities throughout Yemen, anti-Saleh protesters were out in force.

Saleh has defied three months of protests and Friday called his opponents "outlaws" and "forces of terror."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon vowed Friday to continue pressing for change in Yemen, but sounded a note of exasperation at the slow progress.

"It is unfortunate and frustrating that all these agreements which were presented by the GCC and the international community have not been fully accepted and agreed and implemented."

Anwar al-Awlaki targeted in US military attack in Yemen

Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly the intended target in a US military attack that left at least two suspected al Qaeda militants dead in Yemen.

By Todd Eastham, Reuters / May 7, 2011

The U.S. drone aircraft attack that killed two midlevel al Qaeda militants in Yemen on Thursday was targeting the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a U.S.-born radical known for encouraging attacks on the United States, U.S. media reported.

CBS News and The Wall Street Journal, citing Yemeni and U.S. officials, said on Friday that Anwar al-Awlaki was not hit when a missile was fired at a car in southern Yemen on Thursday, killing two brothers believed to be al Qaeda militants.

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"We were hoping it was him," a U.S. official told CBS News.

The U.S. Defense Department declined to comment on the reports.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is estimated to number about 300 fighters with strongholds in remote mountain regions in the provinces of Shabwa, Abyan, Jouf and Marib. It is thought to be behind numerous attacks on government targets.

The group is said to have inspired attacks by Muslims inside the United States -- including the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings in which an Army psychiatrist is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32 -- and twice smuggled explosives aboard aircraft headed to the United States.

Yemen's Defense Ministry confirmed Thursday's drone attack had killed two al Qaeda militants, identifying them as brothers Musa'id and Abdullah Mubarak al-Daghari.

Washington considers the Yemen-based al Qaeda branch the world's most active terror cell.

With the killing in Pakistan earlier this week of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, some officials believe Awlaki's group now represents the gravest danger to the United States and other Western nations.