The Obama administration is looking for ways to increase pressure on al Qaeda militants in Yemen after the parcel bomb plot, U.S. officials said Monday, but its options are limited.
Analyst say Yemen's weak central government faces colossal economic problems and fierce anti-American sentiment that complicate its partnership with Washington, and U.S. officials have treaded lightly since the plot's discovery last week.
Instead of calling for a greater crackdown, the Obama administration has publicly praised the quick response by Sanaa after two U.S.-bound bombs sent in air cargo packages from Yemen were intercepted in Dubai and Britain.
"The fact is that the Yemeni government has done what we have asked it to do," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
But a statement from Yemen's embassy in Washington over the weekend strongly asserted Yemen's sovereignty and warned "foreign interference in our internal affairs is not welcome."
"Yemen will continue tracking al Qaeda operatives using our own fighter jets, our own equipment and our own military forces," the English-language statement said.
Analysts cited domestic concerns that the plot, which officials say appears to be the work of Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, could be used to justify greater U.S. intervention.
Too big of a U.S. footprint could spark a backlash, helping al Qaeda recruiting and weakening Sanaa, they say.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh is already grappling with secessionist unrest in the south and an uncertain cease-fire with northern Shi'ite rebels, and his security forces have also suffered big losses to al Qaeda.
"What makes this so difficult is that the government has very limited control over the country of Yemen," said Rick Nelson, a former U.S. counterterrorism official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Then there are practical limitations of the U.S. government, already stretched by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its sizable counterterrorism assistance to Pakistan.
The United States has already ramped up counterterrorism assistance to Yemen to $155 million in fiscal year 2010 from just $4.6 million in 2006, a reflection of the growing threat seen from AQAP, identified as the most active al Qaeda branch outside of its traditional base in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Total U.S. assistance, including civilian aid, approached $300 million in 2010, the State Department said, adding fiscal year 2011 assistance was seen "in the same ballpark."
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the Obama administration was eyeing a range of options to increase pressure on AQAP, which took credit for a failed attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner last Christmas.
Crowley stressed that Washington was trying to bolster Yemen's own, somewhat limited, capabilities so it can "deal with violent extremists who are a threat to Yemen as well as a threat to the United States."
"Yemen has a limited governmental capacity and we have worked hard to improve its capabilities so that it can secure Yemen for its own people as well as for others," he said.
Hank Crumpton, a former senior official at the CIA and the State Department, said options are limited by Yemen's complex tribal politics, rough terrain and lack of infrastructure.
"Fundamentally, manhunting is hard and in those environments it's even harder because your intelligence has not only got to be specific, but it has to be timely," he said.
AQAP is playing host to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American Islamist preacher of Yemeni ancestry. U.S. officials have said Washington has authorized the CIA to kill or capture Awlaki.
Although the Pentagon has refused to publicly discuss operational details in Yemen, it was eager on Monday to reject a media report saying the U.S. was considering putting covert "hunter-killer" military teams in Yemen under CIA authority.
The Wall Street Journal said the proposal would allow greater U.S. leeway to strike targets without the explicit blessing of the Yemeni government -- a strategy that would surely spark an uproar in Yemen.
"There is nobody in a leadership in the Defense Department who's given any serious consideration to the proposal outlined in that article," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
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