The situation in Yemen, where the government is battling militants linked to al-Qaida, struggles for attention, for the most part, in White House news briefings which in this presidential election year are increasingly dominated by domestic U.S. politics. But an exception occurred last month.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to a question VOA posed, inquiring about the upsurge in conflict between Yemeni government forces and al-Qaida linked militants. It’s an escalation that has been hard to ignore, though stories about the violence usually don’t make front pages of major U.S. newspapers.
Noting the latest reports I asked if it was the White House view that the situation in Yemen was showing any improvement.
Carney sidestepped a direct response on this. Calling Yemen a “very important place” he said the U.S. approach is comprehensive, involving humanitarian and economic aid, and security and counter-terrorism support to combat the “common threat of violence extremism.”
A second question involved the use of drones in Yemen. The Washington Post reported in mid-April that the CIA was seeking authority to expand use of drones in the country to strike suspected terrorists even if the identities of those being targeted were not known.
Asked if drone attacks were effective, Carney stuck to the well-known policy of declining to comment on intelligence of counter-terrorism matters.
The questions on Yemen that day in the White House briefing room came before the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. special forces.
And as is now known, President Obama was informed, also in April, by his national security team of a new plot, likely by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to get an upgraded “underwear” bomb on an airliner bound for the United States.
Just before the bin Laden anniversary, the Obama administration said al-Qaida affiliates, such as AQAP remained intent on conducting attacks on the United States “possibly to avenge the death of bin Laden but not necessarily tied to the anniversary.”
Reviewing that statement, it appears entirely possible that President Obama already had knowledge of the new plot involving a refined underwear device, now in the hands of the FBI, which with a non-metallic construction could have avoided detection by airport scanners.
In a side development, the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Republican Congressman Peter King, said he was told that the thwarted bomb plot was connected with a U.S. drone strike that killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, wanted by the U.S. in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000.
A new sense of urgency
Taken together, reports on the escalating conflict in Yemen, the stepped up drone and missile strikes, and the sending of U.S. military trainers to Yemen, indicate a new urgency the Obama administration feels about the situation in the country.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, told reporters that “small numbers” of trainers are returning to Yemen for what he called “routine” counter-terrorism cooperation.
A U.S. official quoted in an Associated Press report and speaking on condition of anonymity, said the trainers were special operations forces.
Yemen’s new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took over this past February, has urged the U.S. to increase counter-terrorism assistance and recently described the fight against al-Qaida as being in its early stages.
Meanwhile, as the situation in Yemen heats up, so are concerns about human rights violations in the country.
A new Human Rights Watch report said Yemen’s government detained dozens of demonstrators and other perceived opponents of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh since February of last year.
The report said Human Rights Watch documented 37 cases in which security forces held people for days, weeks, or months without charge, including 20 who were picked up or remained in detention since last November.
Human Rights Watch detailed alleged illegal detentions and abuse of prisoners by Yemen’s security forces, including instances of torture, and called on government and opposition forces to immediately free anyone still in arbitrary detention.
Dan Robinson has been Voice of America's Senior White House Correspondent since 2010, arriving from Capitol Hill where he covered the House of Representatives from 2002 to 2009. He is also a former bureau chief for VOA in Southeast Asia, and East Africa, and headed VOA's Burma broadcast service between 1997 and 2001.