US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged Wednesday that al-Qaida was seizing terrain amid the chaos in Yemen, but vowed that Washington would continue to combat the extremist group despite ongoing fighting there.
"We see them making gains on the ground there as they try to take territory," said Carter, who was in Japan as part of a visit to Asia for talks with regional allies.
Yemen has descended into violence over recent months, with Huthi rebels seizing power in the capital Sanaa in February.
The Huthis, allied with army units loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been fighting forces supporting President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who has fled to the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Late last month Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of air strikes, amid fears Yemen will slip into Huthi control and shift into the orbit of Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia's regional rival.
Observers say al-Qaida and other groups are exploiting the instability, in which the World Health Organisation says at least 540 people have died since March 19.
"The terrorism threat to the West, including the United States, from AQAP (Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula) is a longstanding and serious one (..) that we will keep combating," he added at a press conference alongside his Japanese counterpart, Gen Nakatani.
"Obviously it's always easier to conduct CT [counter-terrorism] ops when there is a stable government willing to cooperate.
"That circumstance now obviously doesn't exist in Yemen but that doesn't mean that we don't continue to take steps to protect ourselves. We have to do it in a different way, but we do and we are."
Carter expressed hope that peace would be restored "not only for that reason but also (because) there is a lot of suffering in Yemen".
At the end of last week AQAP, which the U.S. views as the most dangerous wing of the Sunni Muslim extremist group, captured the army headquarters and the southeastern port of Al Mukalla.
The fall of a government that had been hailed by President Barack Obama as a model for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts is a setback for the administration. Carter said the U.S. “will keep combating” the militant group, and “we obviously will change the way we do that in accordance with the circumstances there.”
The U.S. is supporting armed intervention in Yemen by neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has conducted two weeks of air strikes on behalf of deposed President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The Yemeni leader quit in January in the face of a widening revolt by the northern Houthi movement.
The Saudis have assembled a 10-nation coalition of Sunni Muslim countries, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, opposed to a rebel force they see as a proxy for Shiite Iran.
Yemen, though poor, has strategic significance. Roughly 4 percent of global oil shipments pass its shores each day via the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Carter said the U.S. is providing the Saudis with classified intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information. The U.S. is also giving unspecified logistics help, while resupplying Saudi munitions and equipment stockpiles that have been depleted in combat.
From his aircraft en route to Asia on Monday, Carter called Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss Yemen and “promised to collaborate closely over the next several weeks to address security issues in the region,” according to a Pentagon statement.
Carter is in Tokyo for talks with Japanese officials preparing for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington later this month.
The president until recently had cited Yemen as a model for the U.S. counter-terrorism effort. The chaos in the country, however, is giving the local al-Qaeda offshoot free reign. On April 2, the group overran the Mukalla prison and freed 300 inmates, including senior AQAP commander Khaled al-Batarfi.
The Soufan Group, a consultancy staffed with former U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials, called the extremists’ release in a country teetering on the brink of civil war “a recipe for disaster.”
The terrorist group was responsible for the Christmas 2009 “shoe bomber,” who attempted to destroy a U.S.-bound passenger jet, as well as separate plots a year later to ship explosive packages to the U.S. aboard cargo jets.
In September, Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, identified AQAP as the terrorist group most likely to attack the U.S. Even as the core al-Qaeda leadership under Ayman Al-Zawahiri hunkers down in western Pakistan, AQAP “remains committed to conducting attacks in the West,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February.
In December, before Yemen unraveled, the group released the 13th edition of its English-language magazine Inspire, which contained instructions for building a nonmetallic explosive device and urged supporters to attack western airliners.
Helped by U.S. training over much of the past decade, Yemen’s government carried out raids against al-Qaeda and provided the U.S. with a base for armed drone missions. The U.S. has carried out 106 drone strikes in Yemen since Obama took office in 2009, killing more than 800 individuals identified as militants and roughly 80 civilians, according to the New America Foundation in Washington.
“It’s always easier to conduct counter terrorism operations when there is a stable government willing to cooperate in place,” Carter said. “That circumstance now obviously doesn’t exist in Yemen. That doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to take steps to protect ourselves. We have to do it in a different way.”
The U.S., which provided Yemen with more than $401 million in counter-terrorism aid over the past eight years, still flies unmanned aerial vehicles or drones from bases elsewhere, including from Djibouti across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait.
But with Islamic State or its affiliates active in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and the Sinai, the equipment needed for anti-terrorism raids -- reconnaissance drones, piloted aircraft and satellites -- is in short supply.
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