July 14th, 2010
10:13 AM ET

U.S. military picks, trains Yemeni fighers

Walking past the AK-47s at the gates of Yemen's Central Security Forces seemed rather easy although it was not Yemeni soldiers asking questions - it was Americans in a Land Cruiser.

The anti-terror headquarters in Sana'a has a number of foreign guests these days, but until now they have never been caught on camera.

Beneath hats and behind sunglasses, U.S. and British military trainers put Yemeni security forces through their paces - teaching them how to fight al Qaeda.

At the training grounds in the mountains surrounding the ancient city, they were finishing up classes for the day.

Such classes are secretive. They are acknowledged by the governments involved but rarely openly discussed.

The trainers were less than keen on publicity and CNN was ordered to stop filming despite having rarely granted official permission to visit the base. Their numbers have not been confirmed. Over the course of a few days I spotted around ten.

Their responses to a Western journalist ranged from cordial chats to passive aggressive. Most skulked off when they saw me.

Pressure has been on the Yemeni government to fight a growing al Qaeda element - al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular - which grabbed the attention of the West with the Christmas Day attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines transatlantic flight as it landed in Detroit. The suspect, Farouk AbdulMutallab, who has pleaded not guilty to six federal terrorism charges, was reportedly trained and armed in Yemen.

They are more than advisers, they hand pick the country's top fighters, said General Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Al Saleh, President Saleh's nephew, who runs the elite counter-terrorism unit (known as the CTU).

"First, when we recruit new blood to the CTU, the British are the first ones to handle the training, and then from there, they pass them to the American trainers, and then more training and only a few can continue to the CTU," said Al Saleh.

"It is financed and supported by the United States Government and the UK."

Although most military officials admit in private they would prefer not to need foreign advice, the general admits it has been useful to his troops.

"Before we used to conduct operations and we [would] find difficulty [in] dealing with terrorists especially as we have [a] lack of training and [a] lack of equipment," he said. "So after the cooperation with the United States we limited our injuries and our casualties."

Each operation is filmed and given to U.S. advisers to analyze, he added.

"We review all operations with the Americans and then we check when we need more training."

But al Qaeda is also stepping up its training in Yemen. Some counter-terrorism experts warn that an influx of foreign fighters from the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq is making the terrorist presence in Yemen much more resilient.

Al Qaeda is using U.S. and British involvement in Yemen as propaganda to win over the support of locals and discredit the Yemeni government.

There is also growing speculation of a more direct role in the fighting by the American military. But U.S. officials maintain they only provide intelligence and training to the Yemenis.

In June, Amnesty International released photographs of U.S. cluster bombs dropped on a rural Yemeni village in an anti-al Qaeda operation. Scores of women and children were reported to have been killed. This attack took place on December 17 - about a week before the Detroit attempted bombing.

Most Yemeni army officials believe al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula numbers only a few hundred, highly-trained fighters living in rural areas where local tribes may provide shelter.

One senior Yemeni government official speaking off the record said that, after the Detroit bomb plot, they came under so much pressure from the U.S. to tackle al Qaeda they moved negotiators out to villages warning them against harboring suspects.

"Yemeni society is not homogenous, there are lots of people who see the Yemeni-U.S. security cooperation as a horrible choice," said Mohammed Al Asaadi, a former editor of the Yemen Observer. "Others believe this kind of cooperation is acceptable as long as it is based on a win-win deal which - they feel - is not the case. Whether the U.S. or UK troops are building the capacity of the Yemeni forces or directly are launching air attacks, this kind of military cooperation is publicly unwelcome."

For the Yemeni government, any evidence of foreign involvement in its campaign against al Qaeda risks a backlash. This is one of the most conservative of Arab countries where foreigners are often viewed with suspicion.

The western trainers may play a crucial role in helping confront al Qaeda here - but in winning the war the government risks losing the hearts and minds of its people.

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Filed under: Security Brief
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Tsimbi

    Great. More future well trained terrorists. Why don't we learn our lesson and leave the Middle East alone?

    July 14, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jim

    Interesting. This CNN reporter captured footage of what she says is American military service men training a very “hush hush” Yemeni anti-terror military unit. The reporter takes a very “I’ve discovered a secret I wasn’t supposed to” tone in her story, yet the Yemeni General in charge of the operation apparently was “very frank” when talking about American training and assistance in organizing this Yemeni anti-terror group. Perhaps most interestingly, the reporter does a good job balancing the story by showing video footage of and reporting that al Qaeda has also stepped up its training regimen and propaganda techniques to “discredit the Yemeni government.” Not too sure why this is such a “secret” story, I would imagine we’d want to show that a nation that is traditionally stereotyped as supportive of terrorism is instead “secretly” fighting it. Thoughts? – Jim

    July 15, 2010 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  3. John

    This reporter is also grossly distorting with respect to the claims of American cluster bombs. SOmeone sent Amnesty Internaitonal photos that could have been taken anywhere. Amnesty International was unable to verify when or where the photos were taken. WHo sent these photos to Amnesty International? Propagandists for the Islamic Fundamentalists who made allegations that are obviously false. The Yemeni government conducted an inquiry into the matter and determined they alone launched the attack and paid those civilians who were harmed.

    This article fails to note that it was merely alleged that these photos were taken in Abyan and instead asserts theydefinitely were even though Amnesty International admits it can't verify the claim. Shady reporting to the max. Is this journalist intentionally distorting or just as dumb as dirt?

    July 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Eric

    Hi Jane,

    could you send me a reply , I like to have contact with you concerning maritime security

    kind regards,


    April 19, 2011 at 1:52 am | Report abuse |