(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. government withdrew remaining personnel from Yemen at the weekend, six weeks after evacuating the embassy in Sana’a and six months after President Obama held up Yemen as an example of a long-term and successful counter-terror strategy.
U.S. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) expressed concern Sunday that the withdrawal will damage U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities, in turn increasing the terror risks posed to the homeland.
As the troubled Gulf state edges closer to all-out civil war, U.S. special forces were reportedly pulled out of an air base where they have been training Yemeni troops fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP) terrorists.
The withdrawal came as AQAP fighters battled government troops for control of a town some 20 miles from the Al Anad air base.
The base is in Lahj province, which abuts Aden in the south. Aden is where ousted President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, once a key ally of the U.S. in the fight against AQAP, has been located since he fled Sana’a in late February.
The capital and other areas – now including almost half of the country’s 21 provinces – are under the control of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi militia, while forces loyal to Hadi, elements loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and AQAP fighters are also vying for territory and influence.
Adding to the chaos and further fueling sectarian sentiment, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for deadly bombings last week targeting Houthi-linked mosques in Sana’a.
The State Department confirmed that remaining American personnel have been withdrawn from Yemen although it did not specifically mention military personnel.
“Due to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, the U.S. government has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen,” spokesman Jeff Rathke said in a statement.
“We have informed President Hadi of this step as part of our close coordination with the Yemeni government,” he added. (The U.S. still recognizes Hadi, despite his resignation in January after Houthi forces seized the presidential palace – a resignation he later retracted.)
Rathke said the U.S. would “continue to actively monitor terrorist threats emanating from Yemen and have capabilities postured in the area to address them.”
He did not elaborate but U.S. Central Command has its forward headquarters at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, just under 1,000 miles from Aden. Across the narrow Gulf of Aden lies Djibouti, home to U.S. Africa Command’s Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. The amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima has been positioned near Yemen in recent weeks.
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” House Homeland Security Committee chairman McCaul sounded unconvinced.
“Because we are withdrawing completely, we will have no intelligence footprint or capabilities to monitor what AQAP and ISIS and the Shia militants are doing in the region,” he said.
“Good intelligence stops plots against the homeland. Without that intelligence, we cannot effectively stop it. That’s what I’m most concerned about.”
On the State Department’s assertion that the U.S. has “capabilities postured in the area,” McCaul said, “But it’s not – it’s not in country. And the human intelligence value is not there. And maybe we can launch drone strikes from other countries, but if you don’t have that intelligence on the ground, how do you know who to hit and where and when?”
“These developments in Yemen greatly concern me because of the – their potential to attack the United States.”
McCaul also compared the lawlessness in Yemen with the situation in Libya, another country whose autocratic leader, like Saleh, was toppled during the so-called “Arab spring” – although in Libya’s case with U.S. and NATO assistance.
“Look, it’s a model from Libya. We pulled out of Libya,” he said. “Now look what’s happened: A safe haven, a vacuum, ISIS training militants to hit in Tunisia. And now we get Yemen. You know, all of the northern Africa seems to be falling to this power vacuum that is being filled by the terrorists.”
Friday’s suicide bombings of mosques, which cost more than 140 lives, was the first major attack in Yemen claimed by ISIS, which morphed from an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq and is now viewed as the main Sunni rival to the al-Qaeda terror network.
Seeking to spread its influence beyond its Syria and Iraq strongholds, ISIS has been linked to major attacks in Paris and Tunis, carried out the mass murder of Egyptian Christians in Libya, and has been embraced by locally-based militants in countries such as Nigeria, the Philippines, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
AQAP meanwhile has arguably become al-Qaeda’s most successful affiliate, with declared intentions to carry out attacks in the U.S. and the West.
The group attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day 2009, when the would-be bomber was restrained after trying detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. In October 2010 AQAP failed in a bid to ship bombs to the U.S., hidden in packages on commercial cargo planes.
‘Partnering and intelligence-sharing’
The U.S. has conducted some 120 drone strikes in Yemen during the Obama administration, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation.
Major successes included a Sept. 2011 strike that killed Yemeni-American cleric and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. Most recently, AQAP confirmed the death of a top terrorist, Harith al-Nadhari, in a Jan. 31 drone strike.
When Obama laid out his strategy against ISIS in Syria and Iraq last September he stressed the intention to attack from the air but depend on partner forces on the ground – Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq, “moderate” rebels in Syria – citing Yemen and Somalia as examples of successes in that regard.
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” he said.
Last January, as Yemen spiraled further out of control, Obama during a visit to India addressed the issue at some length, saying his top priority remained to ensure “our people on the ground” are safe, while his second was “to maintain our counterterrorism pressure on al-Qaeda in Yemen.”
“Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability,” he acknowledged. “What I’ve said is, is that our efforts to go after terrorist networks inside of Yemen without a occupying U.S. army, but rather by partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government, is the approach that we’re going to need to take.”
“We’re going to have to recognize that there are going to be a number of the countries where terrorists have located that are not strong countries. That’s the nature of the problem that we confront.”
Obama said it would be a long and difficult process.
“It is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option that we have.”