The connection to Yemen of the foiled December 25 attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner has spotlighted the impoverished Middle Eastern nation as a potential incubator for terrorists. U.S. officials say the Yemeni government has joined the counterterrorism fight, but some outside experts question the depth of its commitment.
Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said that the government of Yemen has recently shown a new commitment to fighting the growing presence and influence of al-Qaida on its soil.
"I would note that over the past month or six weeks, there has been a much greater focus by the government of Yemen on the threat posed by al-Qaida," he said. "And this is an encouraging sign. There is a new determination that the government has put toward al-Qaida."
But speaking at the same hearing, analysts voiced skepticism that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has jumped wholeheartedly into the U.S.-led war on terror. They point out that Yemen's government is fighting the Houthi insurgency in the north of the country and a secessionist movement in the south.
Analyst Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute said al-Qaida is not a top priority for President Saleh.
"I think we're going to have an extraordinarily difficult time persuading him that fighting a group that he's more likely to perceive as our enemies than his enemies should take precedence over fighting a group whose ideology fundamentally undermines the rationale and legitimacy of his rule," he said.
The suspect in the foiled Christmas Day airline bombing plot - 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - is reported to have received his orders and training from the Yemeni branch of al-Qaida, known as Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemeni affairs expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University told Senate lawmakers that al-Qaida was able to regroup in Yemen because anti-terror efforts have been diverted elsewhere, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Lapsed vigilance by both the U.S. and Yemeni government allowed al-Qaida to rebuild and reorganize itself, essentially resurrect itself up from the ashes," he said. "
"And so what we're dealing with now is the second incarnation of al-Qaida, which has learned a great deal from its earlier mistakes. Al-Qaida in Yemen is now much stronger than it ever has been in the past. And whether or not it realizes this, the U.S. is in a propaganda war with al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, and it's losing," he added.
State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin said the U.S. strategy is to battle al-Qaida by helping Yemen.
"Stated bluntly, to have any chance of success, U.S. counterterrorism policy has to be conceived in strategic, not tactical, terms and timelines," he said. "Therefore, our strategy is to build up the Yemeni capacity to deal with the security threats within their borders and develop government capacity to deliver basic services and economic growth."
But former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told the committee that the United States must be careful not to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach in dealing with Yemen and terrorism.
"Yemen does not have the sectarian divides that we saw in Iraq, and we should be careful not to see the problems through that prism," she said. "It does not have the linguistic and ethnic divides that we have seen in Afghanistan."
"And it has very blessedly been able to avoid both the clan violence and the warlordism of Afghanistan. We have a fragile state; we do not have a failed state. We do have to be very careful that we do not take steps to push it over the edge," she continued.
The State Department's Jeffrey Feltman said the United States has already promised $63 million in aid for Yemen, most of it for counterterrorism, and that that figure is likely to increase in the future. He also noted that some $5.2 billion in international aid was pledged to Yemen in 2006, but most of it never arrived because of questions about Yemen's governance.
An international conference on Yemen is scheduled to be held next week in London in conjunction with a meeting on Afghanistan.