By Stephen Collinson (AFP)
CHICAGO — US President Barack Obama said Monday the United States was very worried about the threat posed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen after the group massacred almost 100 soldiers in a huge suicide blast.
Obama pledged to work with the Yemeni government to crack down on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has been blamed for several Yemeni-based attempts to blow up US airliners and cargo planes.
“We are very concerned about Al-Qaeda and extremist activity in Yemen,” Obama told reporters at a NATO summit devoted to ensuring that Al-Qaeda is not allowed to regroup in another one-time terror haven, Afghanistan.
Obama said there was no doubt that Yemen’s poverty and instability attracted extremists, and added that Washington, which has used drones to take out leaders of AQAP, had a robust counter-terror operation there.
“We’re going to continue to work with the Yemeni government to try to identify AQAP leadership and operations and try to thwart them,” Obama said.
“That’s important for US safety, it’s also important for the stability of Yemen and for the region.”
In the attack, a soldier detonated explosives under his uniform in the middle of a battalion, killing 96 troops and wounding about 300, in a massive blast witnesses said echoed loudly across Sanaa, causing panic among residents.
AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack which it said targeted “the defense minister and other leaders of the US war on our people in Abyan” province in the south.
Obama said the United States had learned from its time in Afghanistan that it was vital to stay focused on counter terror operations and to work with local governments and not to over extend US forces.
“We’ve got similar problems in Somalia, what’s happening now in Mali and the Sahel,” Obama said, adding that terrorists would seek to infiltrate nations where the machinery of the state was “wobbly.”
Earlier, Obama’s counterterrorism chief John Brennan spoke to Yemeni President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi who “pledged not to let terrorist acts interfere with Yemen’s peaceful political transition,” a statement said.
State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner reinforced the White House statement.
“This cowardly attack highlights the lengths to which Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will go to wreak havoc in Yemen and beyond,” he said.
“The United States remains committed to a comprehensive strategy that emphasizes governance and economic development as well as counterterrorism efforts in Yemen,” Toner said in a statement.
Obama last week signed a decree allowing sanctions to be imposed on individuals or entities deemed a threat to Yemen’s stability which empowers the US Treasury to subject offending individuals and entities to asset freezes while prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.
The United States has carried out regular drone strikes against AQAP suspects in Yemen.
In May, several US drone strikes killed a number of Al-Qaeda militants including a top Al-Qaeda leader wanted following the disruption of a plot for a suicide bomber to wear a device sewn into custom fit underwear designed to bring down a passenger jet.
The plot mirrored another Yemen-based plot, on Christmas Day 2009, when a suicide bomber tried to bring down a US airliner over Detroit, but the device failed to properly explode.