Secretary of State Clinton Makes Unannounced Stop in Yemen to Press Counterterror Efforts

By Matthew Lee | January 11, 2011 | 5:42 AM EST

Sanaa, Yemen (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Yemen on Tuesday, an unannounced visit to shore up and repair damaged ties with a fragile and problematic ally that is fast becoming the main focus of American counterterrorism efforts.

Under tight security, Clinton landed in the capital of Sanaa, where she was pressing Yemeni leaders to do more to crack down on extremism that has bled into the West with attacks such as those thought inspired by U.S.-Yemeni radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki is believed to be hiding in Yemen and is subject to a U.S. execution order.

The first U.S. secretary of state to visit Yemen in 20 years, Clinton said she wants her trip to underscore U.S. support for the country and convince Yemenis that the U.S. wants more than military ties. She said the U.S. wants to address the underlying causes of extremist violence, like grinding poverty, social inequality and political divisions.

"It's not enough to have military-to-military relations," she told reporters accompanying her on a tour of the Persian Gulf before she arrived in Yemen. "We need to try to broaden the dialog. We need to have this dialog with the government."

But that dialog has been complicated by the disclosure of secret U.S. diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks website. One of those documents reported that a senior Yemeni official lied to parliament by denying the U.S. was involved in airstrikes against wanted targets.

Clinton will meet Yemeni officials, civic leaders and students during her stay of several hours in Sanaa, a visit shrouded in secrecy for security reasons. Yemen has been the site of numerous anti-U.S. attacks by al-Qaida and its affiliates dating back to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor, which killed 17 American sailors

Just last month, several CIA operatives narrowly escaped an attack at a restaurant in a Sanaa suburb, and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is thought to be behind the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an American airliner landing in Detroit.

Awlaki is thought also to have inspired the deadly 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. The al-Qaida group's fighters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa twice in 2008, and earlier this month Yemeni officials said al-Qaida gunmen killed 17 soldiers in two attacks in the country's restive south.

Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world, also suffers major internal security problems other than al-Qaida -- an on-and-off Shiite rebellion in the north and a separate secessionist movement in the south. Washington is urging peaceful resolutions to the crises in the hope that settlements will ease popular discontent.

At the same time, the U.S. is pumping millions of dollars into Yemen to combat terrorism and is actively involved in battling al-Qaida in Yemen. But Washington often has complained of a lack of cooperation in information-sharing and a lack of determination from Yemen to take on the militant group.

President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, called Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh last month asking him to take "forceful" action against al-Qaida to thwart its plans to carry out attacks in Yemen and abroad. Last week, Brennan called Saleh to express remorse for the deaths of about a dozen Yemeni soldiers in the fight.

In the past five years, U.S. military assistance to Yemen has totaled about $250 million. U.S. officials say military aid to Yemen would reach $250 million in 2011 alone. Clinton said that will be accompanied by additional development aid.

With U.S. help, Yemen is setting up provincial anti-terrorism units to confront al-Qaida in its heartland, broadening the scope of its operations with highly trained, U.S.-funded anti-terrorism units going into havens not attacked before.

The new units will operate in Shabwa, where Awlaki is believed to be hiding, as well as in the mountainous central Marib province, in Abyan and the eastern province of Hadramawt, where many al-Qaida operatives are taking refuge and where the government has little control, according to government officials.

American officials say the units will hit al-Qaida targets inside Yemeni territory and could include the use of U.S. special operations teams working with Yemeni counterterrorist forces, along with Predator or Reaper drones, which are currently flown from Djibouti or other locations in the region.