Cablegate: Yemen Abuzz with Talk of Ct Operations; Ttention Slowly Turns to U.S. Role


DE RUEHYN #2250/01 3551328
R 211328Z DEC 09




E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/21/2019

Classified By: Ambassador Stephen Seche for reasons 1.4(b) and (d).

1. (S) SUMMARY. Yemenis have talked of little else but the
counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula since news broke of the pre-dawn raids on December
17. Official media and ROYG officials have focused on the
successful aspects of the operation, including an alleged 34
terrorists killed and 51 arrested. Independent and
opposition media as well as the opposition Joint Meeting
Parties and members of the Southern Movement have used the
operations ) specifically the deadly airstrikes in Abyan
governorate ) to criticize what they view as the ROYG's
heavy-handed policies. After a series of stories on U.S.
involvement broke in the U.S. media in the days after the
strikes, local and pan-Arab media have begun to focus on this
aspect of the story. ROYG media reported the conversation
between President Obama and President Saleh and released an
official statement that there was no U.S. military
involvement in the raids. While President Saleh and the ROYG
seem determined to move forward with similar strikes in the
future (septel), still-nascent public support will depend on
the ROYG's ability to effectively manage the evolving
coverage of the events. END SUMMARY.

Heavy media coverage along partisan lines

2. (C) The ROYG made swift work of announcing the preemptive
dawn strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
in Sana'a and Abyan governorates on December 17. But ABC TV
news reports of U.S. intelligence and logistical assistance
to the ROYG were picked up on the same day by Yemen's
opposition media, and were quickly followed by charges of
scores of civilian deaths due to the "joint" airstrikes in
Abyan by ROYG and U.S. forces. Opposition demonstrators and
media outlets, as well as members of Parliament, have called
for an investigation of the civilian deaths in Abyan due to
the airstrikes. The story, heavily reported in the
international press, of an extensive role by U.S.
counter-terrorism forces in assisting the ROYG will linger as
long as interest in the civilian deaths continues.

3. (C) Raids against AQAP at dawn on December 17 in Arhab (a
suburb of Sanaa) and a training camp located in a village in
Abyan's al-Mahfad district were reported immediately by the
Ministry of Defense Web site and picked up by local
and international media by noon on December 17. Reports of
U.S. logistical and intelligence assistance to ROYG
counter-terrorism forces were reported on ABC TV later the
same day. That TV broadcast was swiftly reported on the
opposition Islah party's Web site, al-Sahwa, repeating
assertions of U.S. assistance to the ROYG, and citing unnamed
eyewitnesses claiming that 18 children and 41 men and women
were among the civilians killed by airstrikes. Also on
December 17, al-Jazeera aired footage of civilian casualties
and quoted locals as saying that U.S. aircraft were sighted
on overflight surveillance on the eve of the airstrikes in
Abyan. The official media was slow to respond to rapid
coverage critical of the raids by opposition media and to
organized protests in the region, instead focusing its
initial reporting on AQAP leaders killed or captured in the

Official media defends strikes, denies u.s. Involvement
--------------------------------------------- ----------

4. (SBU) By December 18, the regional and international
media, led by the report in the New York Times that the U.S.
had given intelligence, firepower and other assistance to the
ROYG in their raids against AQAP, began to cover the question
of U.S. involvement. The sensationalist and often inaccurate, the Houthis' official Web site, and Iran's both reported 63 people dead in the raids in
Abyan, including 28 children. On December 19, the ROYG went
on the offensive, reporting on the MOD's Web site that
operations against AQAP militants were targeted to foil
suicide bombers planning attacks against Yemeni and foreign
installations, that the raids resulted in killing four
suicide bombers and arresting four others, and that the
attack on the training center in Abyan resulted in the deaths
of 24-30 AQAP members. Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, broadcast a
report on December 19 that the number killed in Abyan was
over 60, according to eyewitnesses, and that most of the
deaths were civilians. The satellite channel also showed
video of artillery shells with visible serial numbers and
claimed that "U.S. warplanes or cruise missiles probably
conducted the strike." On December 21, official media

attempted to get the damaging story of civilian deaths off
the front pages by diverting focus to the war in Sa'ada.

Elites react with reserve, some praise

5. (S) Gauging public opinion on the December 17 CT strikes
is difficult since the majority of Yemen's population is
rural and no national polling systems exist. The political
elite as represented by Embassy contacts, however, have
generally reacted with reserve, and some have even offered
praise for "long-overdue" action. In an e-mail to EmbOffs,
congratulated the USG on the successful CT operations, which
he praised as necessary to rid Yemen of terrorist elements.
xxxxx, told PolOff that the strikes were necessary to bring
Abyan back from the edge of extremism. "Al-Qaeda travels
freely throughout Abyan and Shebwa, using their training
camps. They now number in the thousands in these areas," he
said. Criticism among the elite classes has so far been
limited to loss of civilian life and largely avoided any
criticism of the U.S. xxxxx to PolOff on December
20, "We do not support religious, ideological or political
extremism, but to use military violence that kills innocents
on the pretext of pursuing criminals is wrong." xxxxx often critical of ROYG
policies - told PolOff on December 18 that he perceived the
operations as successful, but wished the Arhab operation had
netted the "big fish," AQAP Operational Commander Qassim
al-Rimi, which would have provided a better justification for
any civilian losses.

Opposition hits back, citing civilian deaths

6. (S) Members of the opposition Joint Meeting Parties
(JMP), Parliament and the Southern Movement have all used the
airstrikes in Abyan as a means to attack the ROYG for what
the oppositionists call heavy-handed policies. The strike in
Maajala in Abyan's al-Mahfad district, which locals have
reported killed 49 "civilians" (including 17 women and 23
children), comes on the heels of a critical and widely read
Human Rights Watch report focused on the ROYG's violent
suppression of political demonstrations in the southern
governorates released on December 15. (Note: Deputy Prime
Minister for Defense and Security Affairs Rashad al-Alimi
told the Ambassador that civilians killed in the airstrikes
were most likely poor Bedouin from the area providing
logistical support to the terrorists and AQAP family members.
End Note.) Non-stop al-Jazeera coverage of the aftermath of
attacks in Abyan has provided fuel for the opposition. On
December 20, Parliament, led by opposition Islah party member
from Abyan Ali al-Ashal, called Alimi and the Minister of
Defense to appear before the legislative body to discuss
reports of civilian deaths in Abyan.

7. (S) The JMP immediately seized on reports of civilian
deaths, using the December 17 airstrikes as an excuse not to
participate in President Saleh's National Dialogue, set to
begin on December 26. The Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP)
called for the ROYG to compensate victims' families and pay
for treatment of those wounded in the operations. Local
media reported that "thousands" protested in the perpetually
restive southern governorates of Lahj and Abyan, calling for
an investigation into the attacks. Rumors were rampant among
secessionists in southern Yemen that the attack did not
target an AQAP training camp, but rather a civilian
population. xxxxx the airstrikes in Abyan as another occasion to
promote the movement as a better CT partner for the U.S. than
the ROYG. He told PolOff on December 20, "The Saleh regime
is trying to mix up al-Qaeda with the movement. We're
willing to cooperate with you to avoid killing innocent
people and kick out al-Qaeda."

Royg frustrated, but willing to stay the course
--------------------------------------------- --

8. (S) The ROYG has weathered the storm of criticism ) most
of it from the usual suspects ) well, and has restated its
commitment to continue similar operations against AQAP in the
near future. Alimi, speaking for President Saleh, told the
Ambassador on December 20 that his government was determined
to keep hitting AQAP in cooperation with the U.S. (septel).

Political observers in Sana'a have suggested that President
Saleh received a significant morale boost from personal,
congratulatory phone calls from President Obama and Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak the day of the strikes. A
weary-sounding xxxxx, "The attack is already causing the
government a headache because the JMP is using it as the
reason not to participate in the National Dialogue," which
will include economic as well as political issues. However,
the ROYG ) often eager to use flack from the opposition as
an excuse not to move forward in controversial CT operations
) has indicated that it is willing to weather the most
recent criticism.


9. (S) The December 17 operations against AQAP have proven a
success and served as a significant distraction in the local
media from the government's protracted civil war in the north
of the country. In Sana'a at least, many Yemenis seem to
accept the necessity and inevitability of similar CT action
as al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen's lawless tribal governorates
has ballooned in recent months. The ROYG, however, must be
more proactive in countering inaccurate opposition stories
and AQAP propaganda regarding the loss of innocent lives in
the Abyan airstrikes, especially if future operations are
already in the works. While the U.S. has escaped the brunt
of criticism to date, continued leaks from Washington and
international media coverage of American involvement could
stir up anti-American resentment in Yemen and test the ROYG's
professed commitment to going after AQAP. END COMMENT.

© Scoop Media

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