Politics & Government

Al Qaida threat growing in Yemen, Congress hears

WASHINGTON — Al Qaida is growing stronger in Yemen, fueled by anger toward the Yemeni government, anti-American sentiment and the return of Yemenis who fought the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. experts and intelligence officials told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

The experts also warned that while the U.S. is seeking assistance from the Yemeni government to defeat al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that government sees domestic opponents as a bigger problem and may offer only limited help.

The hearing raised questions about how the U.S. should deal with the growing al Qaida threat in Yemen and whether renewed Yemeni strikes on al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula are enough to stop the group's momentum or are merely a halfhearted effort aimed at pacifying an American government after the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing, which reportedly was planned in their country.

On Wednesday, Yemeni officials said they'd struck the home of Ayed al Shabwani, one of six al Qaida leaders whom the government claimed last week were killed in an airstrike.

Also on Wednesday, British Prime Minster Gordon Brown announced a suspension of twice-weekly flights between the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and London, citing a renewed terrorism watch effort.

The hearing was one of three Wednesday on Capitol Hill aimed at better understanding how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane bound for the United States allegedly with a bomb strapped to his underwear. Passengers aboard the flight thwarted Abdulmutallab's alleged efforts to trigger explosives, according to witnesses.

At the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair questioned the decision to charge Abdulmutallab in civilian court, rather than treat him as a terrorism suspect subject to detention as an enemy combatant. Blair, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter said they weren't consulted about the decision, a theme that Republicans have been pressing in recent weeks.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, administration officials acknowledged that Abdulmutallab should have been stopped from getting on the plane but was not because of a series of mistakes by law enforcement and intelligence officials.

"We slipped up," State Department Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy said in response to questions about why his department didn't realize that the suspect had been issued a visa and might enter the country after his father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had reported his son's radicalism to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, officials said they were confident that the Yemeni government was sincere in its efforts to confront al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. "We are encouraged by recent steps the government has taken," said Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

However, they said the Yemeni government also feared threats to its governance from a conservative Sunni Muslim movement in the south known as the Salafists and by another armed group, the Houthis, which operates throughout Yemen.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, called al Qaida "the most representative organization" in Yemen.

Yemen's regime is rife with corruption. While Saudi Arabia provides the regime with some $2 billion in annual aid, much of the money allegedly goes into official pockets. Yemen's oil supply, which accounts for 75 percent of its revenue, is running out. Illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition and disease are rampant among its 23 million people, more than half of whom are younger than 20.

"We have a fragile state; we do not have a failed state," testified Barbara Bodine, the former ambassador to Yemen, adding later: "If there was one place to put our money it is education."

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the United States has no intention of sending ground troops to Yemen, and other witnesses said that anti-American sentiment was too high in Yemen to send troops there.

Instead, the United States must balance its needs with a troubled Yemeni government.

Afterward, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, and retired Marine Gen. James Jones, the national security adviser, met with Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al Qirbi.

(Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.)

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