US weighs options against growing militant threat in Yemen
US officials on Monday weighed expanding operations in Yemen to hunt down Al-Qaeda extremists, who are blamed for a foiled bomb plot that experts said showed a high degree of sophistication.
The plot, disrupted last week after a crucial tip from Saudi Arabia, put the spotlight on US efforts to help Sanaa battle Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, amid speculation Washington might opt to step up missile strikes and covert operations.
The Central Intelligence Agency and other spy services managed to prevent the attempted attack after acting on the Saudis' information, but officials remained anxious about Al-Qaeda finding fertile ground in Yemen's impoverished, tribal landscape.
"The intelligence community has been increasing its focus on Yemen and, for obvious reasons, this will continue to be the case," a US official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Wall Street Journal reported that President Barack Obama's administration was considering placing under CIA authority elite "hunter-killer" special operations teams that would operate secretly in the country to track and kill Al-Qaeda leaders.
Shifting to a more covert strategy would allow Washington to move faster against suspected targets and enable Sanaa to deny knowledge of the strikes, but the approach risked triggering a popular backlash in Yemen.
The Pentagon, however, strongly denied the report.
"There is nobody in a leadership position in the Defense Department who's given any serious consideration to the proposal outlined in that article," spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
The US military currently oversees a 155-million-dollar program to bolster Yemen's counterterrorism campaign, providing helicopters, equipment and training by US special forces -- as well as widely reported missile strikes against militants.
"We work very closely with the government of Yemen on our assistance with respect to counterterrorism activities," Whitman said.
But he added: "You're not going to get me to talk about covert operations."
To undermine Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the United States has dramatically expanded a CIA bombing campaign using unmanned aircraft, and analysts have suggested Obama might opt for a similar approach in Yemen.
Given public resentment of US policies, operations against Al-Qaeda in Yemen are a sensitive subject among US officials, who tend to downplay the American role there.
Some commentators warned against relying on US military assistance in Yemen and urged more development aid to prevent the country from becoming a "failed state."
"Too much attention devoted, for example, to more military assistance, or to allowing the CIA to operate its drone programme in the country, is likely to inflame the internal tensions that attracted Al-Qaeda in the first place," Chris Boucek, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the Financial Times.
Yemen meanwhile announced a security crackdown on cargo shipments after it appeared the powerful explosives addressed to Chicago area synagogues may have flown on two passenger planes and been intended to blow them up.
A former CIA officer warned that the explosives found last week by authorities in Britain and Dubai reflected an unprecedented degree of know-how among the militants.
"It's too early to panic, but we should seriously start wondering whether the bombs found on airplanes in Dubai and Britain are signs of a new, more dangerous wave of terrorism," wrote author Robert Baer, a former spy.
"These bombs have the hallmark of a higher degree of professionalism than we've ever seen come out of Al-Qaeda. If Al-Qaeda indeed made them, they've teamed up with true professionals," he wrote on Time's website.
© 2010 AFP