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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Testimony on Yemen Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Washington, DC
January 20, 2010


As Prepared

Senator Kerry, ranking Member Senator Lugar, Members of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to speak to you today about confronting al-Qa’ida in Yemen.

First of all, the attempted but unsuccessful attack on a U.S.-bound aircraft on December 25, 2009 has reminded us all that the al-Qa’ida threat to the U.S. remains substantial and enduring. Once again, we are reminded of the threats that can emerge when ungoverned and poorly governed places around the world are exploited by terrorists.

The last few weeks have focused the much of the country’s–and perhaps the world’s–attention on Yemen, a place where the United States and the international community have been engaged for years to tackle a multitude of challenges. Our dual-pronged strategy will help Yemen confront the immediate security concern of al-Qa’ida, but also to mitigate the serious political and economic issues that the country faces in the longer term. Not only will we work to constrict the space in which al-Qa’ida has to operate, but we will assist the Yemeni people build more reliable and legitimate institutions and a more predictable future, which will reduce the appeal of violent extremism. It is a strategy that requires full Yemeni partnership. It is a strategy that requires working closely with regional partners and allies. It is a strategy that requires hard work and American resources. The challenges are great, and they are many; but the risk of doing nothing is too grave to consider.

Contrary to some recent somewhat sensational media accounts of al-Qa’ida in Yemen, it is important to note that we know that this is not a new front in our war on al-Qa’ida. The threat has waxed and waned in Yemen since December 1992 when they tried to bomb U.S. troops in Aden en route to Somalia to support the UN mission there, well before the USS Cole attack in 2000. In January 2009, the leader of al-Qa’ida in Yemen (AQY), Nasir al-Wahishi, publically announced that Yemeni and Saudi al-Qa’ida operatives would work together under the banner of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Not including the attempt on December 25, in the past 2 years, this al-Qa’ida franchise has carried out a string of attacks on embassies (including the U. S. Embassy in September 2008), tourists, and security services in Yemen, and it launched a failed an attack against the head of counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia. Now it has attempted to attack the United States directly.

While the threat is urgent, and addressing the problem is complicated, we have an ambitious policy to contend with these challenges. We recognize that al-Qa’ida has taken advantage of insecurity in various regions of Yemen, which is worsened by internal conflicts and competition for governance by tribal and non-state actors. We also know that Yemen is grappling with serious poverty, which translates into difficulties in terms of governing the whole country and having the effective security services to deal with terrorism. Stated bluntly, to have any chance of success, U.S. counterterrorism policy has to be conceived in strategic, not tactical, terms and timelines. Therefore, our two-pronged strategy is to build up the Yemeni capacity to deal with the security threats within their borders, and also to develop government capacity to deliver basic services and economic growth.

Success in defeating AQAP requires the political will of the Yemeni government and people. The government has shown renewed commitment to confront the threat of al-Qa’ida and to recognize it as a threat to the people and state of Yemen. Just last week, airstrikes targeted senior AQAP leaders. Ten days prior, Yemeni forces arrested one AQAP leader and four other AQAP members in a raid near Sana’a on January 4 as part of the effort to root out the extremists responsible for threats to the U.S. and British embassies which had led to their 2-day closure.

Now, more than ever, Yemen needs U.S. government assistance to train and equip its security forces. On the security front, the Departments of State and Defense provide training and assistance to Yemen’s key counterterrorism units. We have steadily increased security assistance and will seek increases in FY10 and 11. In addition, we are working with the Defense Department to provide 1206 counterterrorism assistance for Yemen. Through Diplomatic Security Antiterrorism Assistance (DS/ATA) programs we provide training to security forces in the Ministry of Interior, including the Yemeni Coast Guard and the Central Security Forces Counterterrorism Units (CTU). Future training could include border control management, crime scene investigation, fraudulent document recognition, surveillance detection, crisis management and a comprehensive airport security/screening consultation and assessment.

In addition, in order to confront extremism in Yemen, we must understand how recruits are radicalized, what their motivations are, and how we can mitigate, or prevent extremism, so that we can begin to turn the tide against violent extremism and delegitimize the rhetoric that justifies violence. Some of our aid programs will help address underlying conditions for at-risk populations. Reducing corruption and building legitimate institutions with our assistance will also reduce the appeal of extremism. And we will continue to build positive people-to-people engagement with the people of Yemen, through educational and cultural exchanges.
Many nations share our concern about Yemen and want to assist; this is not solely a U.S. initiative. Regional and international cooperation are fundamental components of our strategy. International assistance can multiply the benefits of U.S. assistance in building Yemen’s capacity to defeat terrorists and developing a well-governed, economically thriving society.

We are also working internationally to prevent funds from getting to AQAP. As soon as AQAP announced its formation, we began gathering evidence to build international consensus behind designating AQAP under UNSCR 1267. Yesterday, following our announcement of the U.S. designation of AQAP as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and its senior leaders as designated terrorists, the UN announced the designation of AQAP as well and added al-Wahishi and Shihri to the consolidated list. This will require all UN member states to implement an assets freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against these entities.

I don’t want to leave you today with the impression that we have figured it all or that there won’t be real setbacks in the future. As Ambassador Bodine and the other experts on your next panel will tell you, Yemen is a place with many political, economic, and security challenges. But our strategy reflects serious and enduring commitment to working with our partners and the Yemenis to confront the threat of al-Qa’ida.

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