To American policymakers, the government of Yemen has always been something of a sphinx. On the one hand, Sana professes to be a steadfast U.S. ally, and goes about the business of fighting Qaeda militants with a swagger and ruthlessness that sometimes recalls the Bush years. (Once, when I asked a Yemeni official what should be the fate of a group of suspected militants imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, the source rolled his eyes and sneered: "Screw them, bomb them, send them to a country where they have capital punishment.") In recent weeks Yemen's counterterror campaign has grown increasingly aggressive, consisting of a wave of airstrikes that have killed dozens at a series of Qaeda camps and safehouses. The Pentagon has eagerly encouraged the crackdown, pouring nearly $70 million into the country over the past year.
And yet, Washington is also rightfully wary of its ally in Sana—a caution that seems particularly justified in the wake of this week's in-flight bombing attempt by a Nigerian who had been studying in Yemen. The Yemeni government's relationship with Al Qaeda is a complicated one. The country's ruling clique, led for the past 30 years by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has long been fighting off challenges from Shia tribesmen in the north and rebellious socialists in the south—threats that it sees as more immediate than a small band of Qaeda operatives without a real political agenda. In the past, Saleh has enlisted local Islamists—including, notably, jihadis returning from Afghanistan in the 1980s—to help fight those battles.
Meanwhile, the government is not exactly keeping tabs on these fundamentalists. Sana's prison system is a revolving door: inmates are regularly released to a loose "house arrest," and in 2006 some of the nation's most dangerous militants remaining in jail escaped in a prison break. When U.S. officials complain, Saleh can sometimes appear surly and fickle. "We don't just say OK to everything [the Americans] ask us," the president snapped when I interviewed him earlier this year. "We are not obedient soldiers of the United States." Saleh's gripes aren't unique, of course; no Middle Eastern ally can afford to look like an American stooge. Still, Yemen's government does seem more comfortable with American military support than, for instance, Pakistan's, where U.S. drone attacks prompt vigorous denials from officials.
That's partly because over the past year U.S. and Yemeni interests have increasingly begun to align as Al Qaeda's presence in the country has grown. "We started seeing a lot of foreign fighters coming in—Saudis, Pakistanis," says one Yemeni diplomatic source. Many of those have arrived (or returned) from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. As they have, the networks of militants have begun to launch quiet, pinpoint strikes on local Yemeni intelligence chiefs—six or seven in the past several months alone. The government's retaliatory raids were launched partly in response to those strikes. "That was our holiday gift to Al Qaeda," says the Yemeni diplomatic source. "We're playing Secret Santa."
Government raids are almost certainly the products of close cooperation with the U.S.—perhaps carried out by CIA-operated Predator drones launched from nearby Djibouti. A. A. Al-Eryani, a former Yemeni prime minister who advises the current president, says that there is "complete intelligence cooperation" with the U.S. on counterterrorism. "That's officially acceptable," he says. "There's no problem with that. It's not a secret to anyone." Still, the intelligence sharing operation doesn't always operate smoothly. Yemeni officials complain that U.S. officials failed to share critical intelligence about Umar Farouk Abdelmutallab. "Nobody came to us and said, 'This guy's a nut job'," says a Yemeni government source.
The backbiting is probably just beginning. American counterterror officials are almost certain to question how an outsider could have moved so easily through Yemen's network of overlapping security services and frequent roadblocks. Al Qaeda's training camps are located primarily in rural Yemen. "It's incredible to me that a guy like that could get past the roadblocks," says Princeton's Bernard Haykel. "That's the most puzzling thing—a Nigerian in Yemen would stick out like a sore thumb." Protests over continued airstrikes on Qaeda targets in Yemen—especially attacks that kill civilians—could further drive a wedge between the U.S. and Yemeni governments. "That plays right into Al Qaeda's hands," says Haykel. If the U.S. is to prevent future attacks from Yemeni soil, it will first need to manage the tensions with its own allies in Sana.