Britain has dispatched a special counter-terrorist unit to Yemen as the mountainous Arab state emerges as the new frontline in the war against al-Qaeda, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent, Adrian Blomfield and Richard Spencer in Sana’a and Philip Sherwell in New York
Published: 7:00AM GMT 03 Jan 2010
Radical Islamist Shebab rebels in Somalia ready to cross the Gulf of Aden to support their extremist Arab allies in Yemen Photo: REUTERS
The force is training Yemeni military and will assist in planning operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group which claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day attack on a US airliner.
The disclosure comes as Western security analysts warn that the failed underwear bomb plot will serve as a test run for future overseas attacks by an increasingly sophisticated outfit still honing its terror techniques.
“The bomber was inexperienced, dispensable and an unknown quantity,” said a senior diplomat in Sana’a. “They would only have given him a 50-50 chance of succeeding. It was a proof of concept mission.”
As concerns grow about Yemen’s role as a hotbed for extremists, Gordon Brown will this month host a crisis meeting to seek ways to prevent the country becoming a failed state stronghold for al-Qaeda. The US on Friday doubled its security assistance to Sana’a to $140 million this year in an effort to combat the spread of extremists in the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden.
The country’s status as a terror breeding ground is under fresh scrutiny following the failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a plane over Detroit on Dec 25 with explosives hidden in his underwear after he was trained and equipped by al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Even before the attack, Britain quietly sent a military unit, believed to be about 30-strong and include members of the SAS, to train and mentor Yemeni forces in surveillance and strike operations, intelligence gathering, hostage rescue and interrogation techniques.
It is understood that the detachment is being assisted by members of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. They will be focussing on British-based jihadists who are now travelling to Yemen for terrorist training – as Abdulmutallab did after earlier becoming radicalised while studying at University College, London.
Up to 20 British nationals travelled to the country this year to be trained by the local “branch” of al-Qaeda, according to Whitehall sources. Senior British military commanders and diplomats also believe that Yemen has now become the reserve base for al-Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A Government spokesman said: “UK Ministers and senior officials continue to work closely with their Yemeni counterparts to pursue those who seek to spread terror and extremism in Yemen, the wider region and beyond. The UK government will continue this support through 2010.”
The disclosure that Britain has a military presence in the country follows the announcement last month that the US was sending special forces to the country to bolster the fight against al-Qaeda.
They have already conducted covert operations within Yemen, using unmanned Predator drones from bases in nearby Djbouti to attack terrorist safe houses. It also provided intelligence and missiles for three recent air strikes in Arhab, Abyan and Shabwa provinces.
On Dec 24, a US-supported strike destroyed a house in the remote mountain valley of Rafd where radical cleric Ayman Awlaki, an inspiration for terror plotters in Britain and the US, was thought to have been meeting with al-Qaeda leaders. But Awlaki told a Yemeni journalist last week that he was about two miles away when the missiles struck.
And US special operations commanders who just returned from Yemen described the challenge of trying to tackle al-Qaeda in such a remote mountainous tribal state where the writ of the central government barely reaches outside the capital.
“The problem they found is that there really are no easily identifiable physical targets,” Dan Goure, a Pentagon adviser, told The Sunday Telegraph. “There are no camps or bases as such, just houses where individuals meet. In that sort of terrain, it’s a real challenge to get your man. Your only real hope is to hunt someone down and put a Hellfire missile on top of them, but it’s extremely tough.”
As an indication of the mounting international concern about Yemen, Downing Street announced the high-level meeting for Jan 28 as Mr Brown described the impoverished state as “both an incubator and potential safe haven for terrorism”.
In a sign of the region’s volatility, senior leader of the radical Islamist Shebab rebels in Somalia responded to the international focus on Yemen this weekend by vowing to send fighters across the Gulf of Aden to support their extremist Arab allies.
The capability and confidence of al-Qaeda in Yemen has strengthened as some fighters have returned from Pakistan and others have sought refuge there from a crackdown in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
But most significantly, the faction has been strengthened by the return to the battlefield of some released Yemeni and Saudi detainees from Guantanamo Bay and a mass 2006 prison break-out of radicals, including the alleged leaders of the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden that killed 17 American sailors.
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