WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is bolstering the hunt for Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen, ancestral home of Usama bin Laden, which remains a terrorist hornets' nest despite efforts of U.S. and Yemeni authorities over the past two years.
The Defense Department has sent a team to the remote, rugged Middle East country to recommend ways the United States can help local forces catch Al Qaeda fighters, including some who fled the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and their supporters, officials said.
Little visible progress against terrorists has been made in Yemen in recent months, although the CIA has offered intelligence; the FBI turned over a list in February of Al Qaeda network suspects believed in Yemen; and U.S. special forces have trained local forces in counterterror tactics for some weeks this summer.
"In Yemen we're still at an early stage," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said.
"We're hopeful that they will become more energetic in pursuing some very dangerous people whom we know are in remote parts of that country," he said in an interview last week with AP Radio and AP Television News.
On the southern Arabian Peninsula across from the Horn of Africa, the homeland of bin Laden's father long has been a base of and transit point for terrorists. At the same time, many Yemenis pay allegiance more to local chieftains than to the central government.
Yemen's place in the lineup of terrorist havens was illustrated again Friday, when Pakistani authorities said they had captured 10 alleged members of Al Qaeda, at least eight of them Yemenis, including suspected Sept. 11 operative Ramzi Binalshibh.
Though the U.S. government will not talk about the nationalities of the hundreds of prisoners at its Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, jail for terror suspects, other sources have said that about 70 are Yemenis.
It also was in Yemen that 17 American sailors died in October 2000, when terrorists believed linked to Al Qaeda bombed the Navy's USS Cole as it refueled in the port of Aden. The attack set off a flurry of joint investigations involving FBI agents with Yemeni police.
With Al Qaeda operatives believed at work in some 60 countries, some of whose governments are willing hosts and some not, Yemen is an example of those nations with terrorists that might like to stop them but need help, Pentagon officials said.
Yemen was the third place -- after the Philippines and Georgia, a former Soviet republic -- to which the Pentagon sent special forces trainers as it expanded the war on terror beyond Afghanistan this year. The 100 Green Berets in Yemen trained a small number of snipers and other counterterror troops for two months and left in July.
With the trainers now gone, defense officials are working on ways to move the effort along in Yemen, Pentagon officials said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. One said that might mean U.S. troops on the ground to actively help in the chase.
"I would not say we've achieved anything like the cooperation or the success in Yemen that we achieved in the Philippines," Wolfowitz said in the interview last week.
It is not as if Yemen has not made an effort. The government's ability is limited by tradition, politics and poverty.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh committed his country to cooperate in the global war on terrorism. The government says it has arrested and interrogated some 100 men suspected of having links to Al Qaeda.
Two weeks ago Saleh deployed what officials said was the first of a planned 2,000 troops to the troublesome northern provinces of Shabwa, Jawf and Marib, strongholds of Muslim militants.
Like Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, where Al Qaeda fighters also have taken refuge, Saleh has walked a fine line, trying to cooperate with the Bush administration without setting off an explosion of anti-American sentiment that could destabilize his government.
Tribal chieftains long have challenged Yemeni authority.
Pressed by the United States, the government sent Yemeni forces trained and equipped by U.S. specialists to attack a tribe in the hunt for terrorists. In the resulting battle, 18 soldiers and six tribesmen died.
Officials predict fighting terrorism in Yemen will continue to be a slow and bloody business.