WASHINGTON — The Obama administration wants quicker and fuller access to intelligence gleaned by Yemeni counterterrorist forces and greater ability to question captured terrorists there, according to a senior administration official.
The White House push comes in the aftermath of the airline package bomb plot aimed at U.S. bound planes by al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The scheme was foiled 10 days ago after explosives hidden in computer printers were found by authorities inside cargo planes in Dubai and Britain.
On Monday, meanwhile, the U.S. announced that new security rules are in place banning all cargo from Yemen and Somalia and prohibiting the transport of printer toner and ink cartridges weighing more than one pound on passenger flights.
Cooperation between the U.S. and Yemen on counterterrorism matters is already fairly good, but the White House is using the near-miss of the package bombs as a way to push for more collaboration, the senior official said Sunday. The official insisted on speaking on condition of anonymity in order to share the high-level strategy deliberations.
Yemen's al-Qaida faction, also known as AQAP, claimed responsibility Friday for the airline plot in which two bomb-filled packages were sent late last month. The industrial explosive PETN was packed into the toner cartridges of two printers destined for addresses in Chicago.
The official also said evidence points to the plot's aim to blow up cargo planes inside or en route to the U.S.
Multiple administration officials say the White House is trying to balance its push for cooperation from Yemen with other tough requests made to Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to change his country's social and economic structure to provide better government.
If the U.S. pushes too hard and publicly for counterterrorism cooperation, such as pressing for a more visible presence of U.S. special operations teams on the ground, the administration risks undermining Saleh's legitimacy and driving more militant sympathizers into al-Qaida's ranks.
That could stall what Obama administration officials describe as their "whole of government" approach to Yemen. The approach, a form of counterinsurgency that looks beyond counterterrorism measures alone, views Yemen's problems as caused by a wider confluence of factors.
Those ills include an ailing economy where some three-quarters of the budget comes from depleting oil revenues. Almost half the population are below the age of 15 and many live on less than $2 a day.
The resulting instability has allowed AQAP a foothold in the country, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the White House strategy.
The administration's interagency counterterrorism team has evolved over the past year in Yemen as the administration has tried to determine what mix of U.S. government capabilities is best suited to the mostly clandestine mission.
Those agencies include the CIA, FBI, and elite U.S. special operations units, according to multiple current and former U.S. officials. The challenge is getting the Yemenis to agree on who they'll work with, and how much access they'll grant, one former official said.
The U.S. is allowed to fly pilotless Predator drones and other observation aircraft over Yemeni territory, many of them launched from the U.S. base in nearby Djibouti.
Yemeni officials have resisted basing the drones inside their country, though that would enable the aircraft to stay above their observation targets longer. The first armed U.S. drone strike occurred in Yemen in 2002 against a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS. Cole. It was widely publicized and damaging to the Yemeni administration.
The Yemeni government is more welcoming to the growing ranks of U.S. special operations trainers, up to 100 at any one time, who work with the country's military. They concentrate on training members of two elite branches of government - the National Security Bureau, which is much like the U.S. CIA, and Yemen's Counterterrorist Unit.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday in Australia that the U.S. could do more to help train Yemeni forces to combat terrorists. He was not specific, but officials told the Associated Press last week that military aid to Yemen would double to $250 million in 2011.