The White House spin on Yemen continues. Today, a "senior administration official" tells Mike Allen that the administration has been getting tough in Yemen for a year.
Throughout this year, the President has urged greater focus on and investment in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and on support for the Government of Yemen and other regional partners' efforts against those extremists. To keep the pressure on al Qaeda Central in Pakistan, we have also increased the pressure on its affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. That is why the President dispatched his counter terrorism advisor and the Commander of CENTCOM to Yemen earlier this year, and it is why we are increasing our investments in and training of Yemeni forces to counter al Qaeda and its murderous agenda. These efforts have already yielded important successes in disrupting al Qaeda efforts and plotting in Yemen. Our actions have made clear that we are determined to seek out and destroy al Qaeda wherever it might hide.
So what were these actions? Two trips to Yemen and money to the Yemeni regime? That's hardly kind of action that tells al Qaeda we want to destroy wherever it might hide, especially since other administration priorities -- greater priorities -- send precisely the opposite message. For example, how does the Obama administration explain the fact that it was administration policy to repatriate and release "a majority" of the 100 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? President Obama said in his weekly address that Yemen is a country "grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies." Why, then, was his administration committed to sending known jihadists there to live freely? Three-quarters of the Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay had been trained in an al Qaeda training camp and the same percentage had stayed at an al Qaeda guest house. The Yemeni regime has not been a consistent ally in the war on terror because as often as not the Yemeni regime has been on the other side. At times, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh says the right things. But his government has freed prisoners involved in the bombing of the USS Cole, it has supported known terrorists and facilitated their travels and operations, it has refused to hand over to the US an al Qaeda cleric designated as a terrorist by the US government, and has captured and released al Qaeda planner Fahd al Quso, among others. Here is one example from a TWS piece written during the first week of the Obama administration:
Consider the story of Abdul al Salam al Hilal, a Yemeni currently detained at Guantánamo. Al Hilal worked for the Political Security Organization (PSO), which is an intelligence agency that reports directly to President Saleh. The PSO operated an official government "deportation" operation, in which veteran mujahedeen were relocated. The U.S. government says al Hilal has admitted that he was tasked with keeping tabs on al Qaeda operatives for Saleh's government. The U.S. government also charges, however, that al Hilal was really an al Qaeda member who used his position of authority to assist his fellow terrorists. According to the U.S. government, al Hilal facilitated the movement of terrorists around the globe and admits that he and the deputy chief of the PSO were paid "to release extremists held in Yemeni prisons." Some of the terrorists the U.S. government claims al Hilal worked to release are well-connected al Qaeda associates. One of them is Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambuli, a high-ranking member of the Egyptian al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya (IG) terrorist organization, which has long been affiliated with al Qaeda. (His brother Khalid assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981. The government's files note that Muhammad al-Islambuli "has been involved in terrorist training in Afghanistan and Pakistan and served as [a] liaison between the IG and Osama bin Laden.") During the summer of 2000, al Hilal visited the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan. Following the September 11 attacks, Italy closed down the institute, primarily because it housed an al Qaeda facilitation network that provided forged passports and other assistance to al Qaeda operatives traveling to and from Afghanistan. Italian authorities had been watching the institute for some time. During one wiretap session, recorded before the 9/11 attacks, they captured a conversation between al Hilal and a senior Egyptian al Qaeda member. The contents are chilling. "Well, I am studying airplanes! If it is God's will, I hope to bring you a window or a piece of a plane next time I see you. . . . We are focusing on the air alone. . . . It is something terrifying, something that moves from south to north and from east to west: the man who devised the program is a lunatic, but he is a genius. It will leave them stunned. . . . We can fight any force using candles and planes. They will not be able to halt us, not even with their heaviest weapons. We just have to strike at them, and hold our heads high. Remember, the danger at the airports. If it comes off, it will be reported in all the world's papers. The Americans have come into Europe to weaken us, but our target is now the sky." In 2002, al Hilal was lured to Egypt on the pretext of doing business and captured by the Egyptian authorities. He was eventually transferred to U.S. custody and Guantánamo. It is not clear what the Obama administration will do with al Hilal. But his story exposes the fundamental duplicity that defines the Yemeni government's behavior. On the one hand, al Hilal was working with Saleh's government to make sure the jihadist forces that thrive in Yemen did not turn against the government. On the other hand, the U.S. government believes al Hilal was exporting terrorism around the globe and had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks.
It's no wonder that one unclassified assessment of the nation from the Guantanamo papers put it bluntly: "Yemen is not a nation supporting the Global War on Terrorism." It is good that President Obama abandoned his claim from Monday that Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was an "isolated extremist" and acknowledges his attack was "directed" by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It's never easy to admit a mistake of that magnitude. The relevant question for the Obama administration: Can they do it again? Will the president acknowledge that he was wrong to have endorsed policy of freeing known al Qaeda terrorists from Gitmo to a nation in the throes of "deadly insurgencies" and with a government that has a long history of supporting jihadists? And, more important, will he correct it?
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