To fight al-Qaeda insurgents in its region, the U.S. is increasing military funding to Yemen, a Middle Eastern country that is separated from Africa by a narrow strait.
The Pentagon will send more than $70 million in funding and will use Special Forces teams to train and equip the Yemeni military, Interior Ministry, and coast guard, the New York Times reported.
Yemen drew the nation's attention on Christmas Day when Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab allegedly tried to destroy a Detroit-bound passenger plane. Al-Qaeda insurgents based in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing and Abdul Mutallab confessed he was given the bomb by an al-Qaeda operative from Yemen.
As the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan continues, al-Qaeda has identified Yemen as a base of operations, and al-Qaeda fighters are reportedly fleeing there.
"As a result of increased pressure on al-Qaeda in South Asia, we're mindful of the fact that al-Qaeda will want to develop additional operations and locations and Yemen has been one of those," said a senior Obama administrative official during a Dec. 29 press briefing.
For al-Qaeda, the regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan are "a dangerous place to be, and the United States has reported numerous al-Qaeda leaders being killed in drone attacks in the past year," said Thomas Mattais, director of research at the Middle East Policy Council.
Yemen shares similarities with Afghanistan that al-Qaeda could be drawn to, said Mattais. There are several independent tribes, and the central government "has limited ability to govern all of it," he said.
In addition to fighting al-Qaeda, the Yemen government is also busy fighting Shi'ite al-Houthi rebels in the north and Southern Movement secessionists in the south, who are trying to overthrow the current government.
A History of Cooperation
According to the Arab Press Service (APS), cooperation between the U.S. and Yemen goes back to the Cold War, when Yemen was still divided between its north and south. North Yemen used to be close to the West, while South Yemen was closer to the Soviet Union, APS reported.
Cooperation between the two countries was temporarily disrupted when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, as "Yemen was seen to be supportive of Iraq," according to APS.
Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh allowed a small group of U.S. Special Forces and CIA agents to fight al-Qaeda cadres in the region, according to the Congressional Research Service report to Congress.
In November 2002 the Yemeni government allowed the U.S. to launch a missile strike against al-Qaeda insurgents in Yemen that killed six terrorists, including the al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, Qaid Salim Sinan al Harithi, who helped plan the bombing of the USS Cole. A year later, Yemen also arrested Harithi's replacement, Muhammad Hamdi al Ahdal, according to the report.
There is speculation that the U.S. is assisting Yemen in its drone attacks against al-Qaeda operatives. When asked to confirm, State Department spokesman Robert Wood refused to comment any specific incident, but said, "I can tell you that we have been—we cooperate with the government of Yemen and other governments around the world in fighting al-Qaeda and others practicing terrorism."
In the past month the Yemeni military has killed a number of al-Qaeda insurgents. A recent airstrike on Dec. 24 killed an estimated 30 of the terrorist fighters.
The additional funding to Yemen was requested earlier in the year.
In June 2009 the Department of Defense (DOD) "notified Congress of a significant obligation" for 1206 DOD funds for Yemeni security forces, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
The DOD 1206 funds include $5.9 million for counterterrorism helicopters with night-vision cameras, $30.1 million for Coast Guard patrol boats and radios, and $5.8 million to deter improvised explosive devices (IED).
The State Department FY2010 budget requested an estimated $50 million in aid to Yemen, which includes $10 million in foreign military financing, says the report. In 2009, Yemen was given more than $40 million in funds. Previous years averaged between $18 million and $25 million.