By Mohammed Ghobari and Tom Finn
SANAA | Wed May 9, 2012
(Reuters) - Yemen's fractured state and dysfunctional security apparatus provide al Qaeda's franchise there with a perfect breeding ground for bomb plots like the one the United States says it thwarted.
Nearly three years after Yemen's then-leader Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to a U.S. carte blanche against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Islamists who fly its flag run parts of Yemen, and Washington's partner in "counter-terrorism" is a new leadership that faces criticism over Saleh's pact.
It has inherited the task of stitching together a military that split into warring factions during a 14-month uprising that saw Saleh surrender power in February, and a simultaneous U.S. demand to turn the armed forces against Islamists militants.
Meanwhile, tribal leaders in parts of Yemen where drone attacks aimed at AQAP have killed civilians say the strikes are turning more and more people against the government and Washington.
The drone war, said one commander of fighters targeting Ansar al-Sharia, now risks enhancing the group's status.
"The tribe... is stronger than the state, and if the American raids continue and expand it will lead to sympathy in society with al Qaeda, particularly if there are civilian victims," said Salem al-A'wash, a tribal leader in Shabwa province.
Al-A'wash, whose fighters are from a region that Anwar al-Awlaki - a U.S. citizen assassinated by a CIA drone last year over his alleged role in a previous AQAP bomb plot - also hails from - warned air attacks also alienated the group's enemies.
"The tribes do not encourage extremism, but they also don't accept the American army carrying out operations on their land."
A senior official of Yemen's government - which said it had no role in a sting operation U.S. officials say delivered a sophisticated bomb, reportedly into the hands of an agent of Saudi intelligence - pointed to the military splits as a factor empowering AQAP. [ID:nL5E8G98ZH]
"We face grave security challenges because of the split in the military which grew out of the political crisis, and that has enabled al Qaeda to spread, seize territory and train its members in safe zones," the official said.
The safe zones referred to parts of two provinces where Islamists pledging allegiance to al Qaeda seized territory last year, as mass protests against Saleh gained momentum.
The ease with which gunmen dubbing themselves Ansar al-Sharia moved on southern territory sparked charges of collusion with Saleh, who was quoted in leaked U.S. diplomatic correspondence from 2009 offering an "open door on terrorism".
The precise relationship between Ansar al-Sharia and AQAP remains unclear, but the group released captive solders on the orders of Nassser al-Wahayshi, AQAP's leader and one-time aide to Osama bin Laden.
It also raises the al Qaeda standard over the towns it controls, and in February executed three men its religious tribunal in Abyan province condemned for spying on behalf of Saudi intelligence and facilitating U.S. drone strikes.
A video the group distributed subsequently showed gunmen leading a shackled, blindfolded captive and forcing him to kneel before a crowd. The men were ultimately beheaded, residents of the area said.
The group's literature, silent on the transnational aspirations of al Qaeda, emphasizes its role in providing services and security to a region where the central government's presence is negligible.
Its newsletters identify the relatives of civilians killed in air strikes against alleged al Qaeda members, and document its mounting victories against Yemen's armed forces.
These include a suicide attack on a "counter-terrorism" unit hours after President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was sworn in, the killing of some 100 government troops and the seizure of heavy weapons in March, and an ambush this week in which the group claims it took 28 soldiers hostage.
Its advances - and a stepped-up campaign of U.S. drone attacks since Hadi took office - have inspired some local militia to move against the group, in part because of the risk its presence may draw U.S. attacks and civilian casualties.
They point to the potential fallout from a campaign the Yemeni government's U.S. backers are urging it to prosecute.
"We are fighting these people because they are using our towns and villages as a strategy to fight the government. When the army attacks, they bombard the towns with air strikes and many civilians are killed," said Saeed al-Dhailie, head of one such militia in Abyan.
"Drone strikes by America kill our civilians and make it harder for us to fight Ansar Al-Sharia. They are gaining more support from locals because they tell them that we are fighting the Americans not the government," he said.