SANAA, YEMEN — The Yemeni government’s fight against Al Qaeda reached a new high this week after government forces launched a major military offensive against a city in southern Yemen known as a base for Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives.
Fighting between government forces and militants started on Tuesday in Hawta, a city in the highly volatile Shabwa Province, and has continued for the past three days. Yemeni forces have surrounded Hawta with tanks, and the city has come under arial attack.
The siege of Hawta coincided with an official visit Monday to the Yemeni capital Sanaa by John Brennan, the US assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security. Mr. Brennan met with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Sanaa to discuss US financial assistance for Yemen and continued support for the government to fight Al Qaeda, according to a White House press statement.
There was speculation about the connection between Brennan’s visit and the military campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), especially given that Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical US-born cleric linked to the Fort Hood shootings, is known to be based in Shabwa Province. But the Yemeni government has said that the bombardment of Hawta was in retaliation for an Al Qaeda attack on a Yemeni liquid natural gas pipeline last week.
Gregory Johnsen, a specialist on Yemen at Princeton University in New Jersey, said that Brennan’s visit seemed to be part of the US’s ongoing efforts to stress to the Yemeni government the importance of the two nations working together “toward an elimination of Al Qaeda in Yemen.”
He added that the campaign in Hawta is part of a larger Yemeni effort over the past few months to bring the fight against AQAP in places like Shabwa, as well as Abyan Province.
The US Embassy in Sanaa would not comment on any relationship between Brennan’s trip and the offensive in Hawta.
Yemen became a central focus of American counterterrorism policy after the failed bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009 that was planned by AQAP. US financial aid to Yemen, the majority of which goes toward military assistance, is set to more than double in 2010, to $200 million.
Many analysts warn against too strong an emphasis on military aid, saying it doesn’t address the symptoms of extremism in the impoverished country, and the causes of growing antigovernment Islamist ideology. They argue that the international community should concentrate more on development to tackle Yemen’s deep-seated poverty.
In Yemen’s countryside, where tribal sheikhs wield more power than the central government, civilians have grown increasing disgruntled with what is widely viewed as the corrupt and inefficient leadership of Mr. Saleh. Analysts worry that not only do these areas provide AQAP with a haven in which the organization can plot attacks against the West, they also offer fertile ground for recruiting new members.
According to local sources, 27 Al Qaeda militants have been captured since the offensive in Hawta began, and the son of late AQAP leader Abdullah Al-Midhar has been killed.
Up to 15,000 civilians have been displaced because of the fighting, according Fouad Abdel Karim, president of the Yemeni Red Crescent Society in Aden.
The home village of the Awlaki family is only about 60 miles away from Hawta. Local opposition press reported yesterday that Awlaki was among the militants fighting in Hawta. The Yemeni government, however, has denied that Awlaki is present among the fighters.
Mr. Johnsen warns that the US should not place too much importance on Awlaki.
“While Awlaki’s death would certainly be an important propaganda victory for the Yemeni and US governments, I doubt that this would in anyway a debilitating blow for AQAP.”
“Awlaki has certainly been a important propagandist,” he adds, “but he is not someone who is a key military or strategic thinker for the organization.”