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Al Qaeda in Yemen has learned from the mistakes made in Iraq and other battle zones.
In both Lowdar and Huta, however, the main force of the Al Qaeda fighters present — two or three score, or more — somehow managed to escape the Yemeni cordons.
Critics say Yemen’s government timed the assault to a visit last week by U.S. National Security Adviser John Brennan, an advocate of tougher action on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
It was also no coincidence that as the government assault on Huta peaked Friday, representatives of the United States and roughly 30 other nations and agencies were meeting in New York to consider how to help Yemen confront its extremist threats, critics of the government say. The group, Friends of Yemen, together has pledged billions of dollars.
The siege of Huta was designed to secure “financial assistance under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” Ali Salem al-Baid, a leader of a separate separatist movement in Yemen’s south, told reporters.
The U.S. military wants to give Yemen $1.2 billion in military aid to fight Al Qaeda.
U.S. military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Americans played a role, but a limited one, in the assault on Huta.
While experts say the threat poised by Al Qaeda in Yemen is real, it is only one of many insurgencies in Yemen. And economists say the greatest danger in Yemen remains the government’s own corrupt and bungled management of Yemen’s stunted economy, which has produced a persistent 40 percent unemployment rate and a cadre of under-educated and disaffected young men.
After Al Qaeda in Iraq doomed itself by violent extremism that cost it support even among Iraq’s Sunnis, Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen are trying to be good guests among Yemen’s Sunni tribes. They have even reached out to the South’s traditionally socialist and secular separatist movement, urging all Yemen’s Muslims to unite against the Yemeni government.
“This is a major change in tactic,” Gerges said. “They are really trying to learn from past mistakes.’’
And while other Al Qaeda branches also have targeted forces of their local countries, and while Al Qaeda in Yemen still pursues Western targets as well, the concentrated campaign against Yemeni forces is new. In the past, the distinguishing characteristic of Al Qaeda, compared to earlier Islamist extremist groups, was its targeting of the “Far Enemy’’ — the United States and its allies — over the “Near Enemy’’ — the governments of the Muslim Middle East.
Gerges, the Al Qaeda expert, asks: Does the battle in Yemen show that international jihad has run its course — or that for Al Qaeda, Western-allied Arab governments have now become one with the West?
"My take is, the answer is both,’’ he said.
Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Associated Press West Africa bureau chief, a former Washington Post Cairo and Baghdad bureau chief, and a recent master's recipient from Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is now living and working in Sana'a, Yemen.