SANAA, Yemen — Yemen appeared to balk this weekend at the Obama administration's decision to authorize the capture or assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, an American cleric who's been linked to the 9/11 attackers, the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day underwear bomber.
"Anwar al Awlaki has always been looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn't be considered as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism," Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Qirbi told reporters last week.
He said the Yemeni government isn't hunting the U.S.-born cleric, who's now believed to be living in Yemen, saying: "The detailed information . . . and evidence gathered by U.S. agencies has not been given to Yemen."
The U.S. has sought to heighten cooperation with Yemen, where it thinks a relatively new offshoot of al Qaida is gaining strength. It's also pledged to double modest American military aid to Yemen, the Arab world's poorest state, which also has been battling a secessionist movement in the south and a rebellion in the north that was resolved only recently.
Yemen has vowed to crack down on Islamist militants, but its alignment with U.S. counterterrorism goals could provoke the ire of powerful tribes in remote areas where al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates.
"Here in Yemen, we have a rule — in the villages, tribes rule," said Hossin Mohammed, an attendant at perfume store in Sanaa, the capital. "You can't kill someone, even if you take permission from the government; the tribes will refuse. You can't see your brother killed in front of you and just shut up."
Awlaki's tribe, which is active in two of those strongholds — Abyan and Shabwa — threatened this weekend to retaliate against any strike targeting the preacher, who's thought to be hiding in the area.
Al Awalik tribal leaders issued a statement saying they'd "not remain with arms crossed if a hair of Anwar al Awlaki is touched, or if anyone plots or spies against him," according al Jazeera.
"Whoever risks denouncing our son (Awlaki) will be the target of al Awalik weapons," the statement said, according to the Arabic news outlet. The tribal leaders also warned "against cooperating with the Americans" in the capture or killing of al Awlaki.
A CIA or special forces move to capture or kill Awlaki, the legality of which is still being debated in the U.S., would anger more than tribal chieftains, however. Yemeni cooperation in an Awlaki strike could spark a wider backlash, increasing already high anti-American sentiment in a country battling the appeal of Islamist insurgents linked to AQAP.
"People who like America will hate it after that," said Khaled, a young salesman in a store selling niqabs, the veils that leave only a slit for a woman's eyes. "Put him in court, but don't kill him here in Yemen."
Upon overhearing the conversation, a female customer who was unaware of the U.S. move to target Awlaki, began fuming.
"Why would they do this?" exclaimed the woman, who declined to give her name. "Maybe to catch the criminal, they will kill many people . . . . People will make trouble, they will be angry with the government."
Drinking coffee with friends in Sanaa on a visit home from the Netherlands, Yemeni businessman Nasser Ahmad recalled the public anger over Yemen's Dec. 24 airstrikes that targeted an alleged al Qaida meeting where Awlaki was thought to be present.
Ahmad's friend Faris Ali, a stockbroker based in Britain who also was home for a visit, disagreed. "The people won't react to anything . . . . They won't give a damn about it," he said.
"I don't know," said Ahmad. "Two times? It might be too much."
U.S. intelligence has been tracking Awlaki for more than 10 years, when the FBI investigated a claim that he was recruiting for Osama bin Laden, but didn't find enough evidence to warrant prosecution. The 9/11 Commission found that he'd met with two of the attackers, though it's unclear what came of that meeting.
Awlaki, who's thought to have moved to Yemen more than five years ago, came under fresh scrutiny when reports came out that his e-mail correspondence with Army Maj. Nidal Hasan had encouraged the American Muslim's decision to kill a dozen fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas last November.
In addition, the Nigerian man known as the "Christmas Day underwear bomber," who tried but failed to detonate a bomb aboard an airplane descending into Detroit, reportedly has said that Awlaki inspired him.
Yemen reportedly asked the CIA for help in apprehending Awlaki just prior to the Fort Hood shootings, but the CIA said it lacked enough evidence. Now, the tables are turned.
Topol is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.
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