SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni policemen sprinted up a rocky dirt road, firing AK-47s, lobbing grenades and detonating explosives at a cinderblock house, a supposed Al Qaeda hideout.
The scenario was fake, but the firepower very real, as U.S. and U.K. military trainers put local counterterrorism forces through their paces northeast of the capital one morning recently.
The 200-person counterterrorism police force is trained daily by the foreign commandos, according to a Yemeni soldier who addressed a small crowd of journalists invited to watch the training.
U.S. and U.K. military personnel were not present, since they’re not allowed to be seen or photographed by the press to avoid drawing attention to their presence on the ground in Yemen, the Yemeni soldier said. His voice was muffled by a black nylon facemask. For his own safety, he said he did not want his identity revealed. He would not give his name or allow himself to be recorded on video.
The presence of Western military personnel in Yemen is “sensitive,” he said, gesturing with an unlit cigarette.
Behind-the-scenes U.S. military involvement in Yemen is not new, but it has been the focus of a heated and virulent debate in Yemen since government forces last month renewed their fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a local affiliate of the international terrorist group. The group claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
U.S. special forces have been training Yemen’s 200-strong counterterrorism police unit on the ground since 2002, when Yemen came under the scrutiny of U.S. and its allies in the newly declared “War on Terror.” It is one of three elite units trained by U.S. and U.K. special forces.
American officials have said that the U.S. provides training, intelligence and “firepower” to the Yemeni government, but does not participate in combat missions. President Barack Obama said earlier this month that the U.S. “has no intention” of becoming directly militarily involved in Yemen.
Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad Alimi said the U.S. has not been involved militarily in recent strikes against alleged Al Qaeda members.
“The operations that have been taken … are 100 percent Yemeni forces,” he said at a press conference earlier this month. “The Yemeni security apparatus has taken support, information and technology that are not available here, and that’s mostly from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries.”
He called the U.S. a “valuable and important ally” in the fight against terrorism, but ruled out the possibility that there would be U.S. boots on the ground in Yemen.
In an attack last week, Yemeni security forces allegedly killed five suspected Al Qaeda members, including high-ranking commander Qasim Raymi, while they were traveling in moving vehicles, according to a government news agency.
The deaths have not been corroborated by any other source. The circumstances surrounding the attack have fueled widespread rumors that U.S. unmanned drones had been used in recent attacks on Al Qaeda members in Yemen, but the Yemeni government has denied their use.
“There are no unpiloted planes in Yemen. I can confirm this for you,” said Alimi, the deputy prime minister. Yemeni security forces receive “pictures and intelligence” from satellites operated by the U.S. and other countries, and small, surveillance drones are used to monitor Yemen’s long coastline, he said.
In 2002, the U.S. used unmanned drones to kill top Al Qaeda militant Salim Sinan al-Harithi.
Ahmed al-Aswadi, a high-ranking member of al-Islah, a conservative political party in Yemen, said “it is believed by most Yemenis” that the strikes reportedly carried out by Yemeni forces in December and January were “actually carried out by U.S. forces.”
“U.S. policy in this region of the world is no secret. If the government doesn’t comply with U.S. demands, then they bring in drones,” he said.
There is powerful opposition to U.S. military involvement in Yemen, where polls consistently show the highest levels of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world. Last week, a group of 150 sheikhs, imams and Islamic scholars issued a statement condemning “any foreign political, security or military intervention in Yemen’s political affairs.” The statement ended with a threat: “If Yemeni foreign policy allows any foreign military or security interference, Islam permits citizens to call jihad to expel its attackers.”
Naif al-Gunas, a member of Yemen’s parliamentary opposition coalition, worries that any new foreign involvement — or discovery of old foreign involvement — could catalyze a backlash against the government.
“We have people in Yemen who are Al Qaeda, and their neighbors oppose them,” said. “But if there is a hand from outside, people will support them — they will join their side.”
In January, Yemeni security forces launched a series of attacks on alleged Al Qaeda strongholds, and claimed to have killed or arrested a number of suspected militants. Yemeni security forces also had ramped up the war on Al Qaeda before the attempted bombing on Christmas Day, attacking suspected Al Qaeda strongholds in Shabwa and Abyan provinces, and in Sanaa, the capital city.
During the half-hour training session, watched by about 30 reporters, cameramen and photographers perched on cement bleachers, three dozen policemen practiced sniping, ambushing and bombing a moving vehicle, driven by a mock Al Qaeda operative, through the desolate training grounds a few miles northeast of Sanaa.
In an effort to broadcast its renewed commitment to the war against Al Qaeda, perhaps to secure additional international aid and military support, the Yemeni government has allowed journalists in recent weeks to visit the training sessions. “Usually, we would do these trainings differently,” said the masked Yemeni soldier. “But it is important for the media to see.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.