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Official doubts scale of Yemen's campaign against al Qaeda

From Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
Yemenis marched this week, hoisting a banner which read: "We condemn terrorism in all its forms all over the world."
Yemenis marched this week, hoisting a banner which read: "We condemn terrorism in all its forms all over the world."
  • NEW: A senior government official claims Yemen is exaggerating its campaign
  • NEW: He says it's a ploy to get more foreign aid for Yemen
  • Yemen says its forces succeeded in driving out al Qaeda in Hatwa
  • Defense official tells CNN that U.S. has assisted in the offensive

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Yemeni security forces have driven out al Qaeda elements who infiltrated the town of Hawta in southern Shabwa province, the state-run news agency reported.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Maqdashi, the security director of Shabwa, told the Saba News Agency on Friday that Yemeni troops were now chasing down al Qaeda fighters who fled to the mountains surrounding Hawta.

This week's military offensive was touted by Yemen as part of an intensified hunt for terrorists, especially those linked to the offshoot al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But a senior government official told CNN that Yemen may have exaggerated the scale of the fighting in order to secure more aid from other nations, particularly the United States.

The official said it was no coincidence that this high-profile military campaign coincided with a visit to Yemen by President Barack Obama's counterterrorism advisor John Brennan and a meeting in New York of the Friends of Yemen, an international group addressing Yemen's poor political and economic conditions that have provided fertile ground for militants to set up base.

"Yemen's government knows what it is doing. This is a game that happens," said the official, who did not want to be identified speaking on such sensitive matters.

"You'll notice that at certain times of the year, the government steps up its efforts to go after terrorists," he said. "They go strongly after al Qaeda. That usually happens when they're trying to show the U.S. how serious they are and that they need more money for the fight."

The official acknowledged that al Qaeda is a growing threat in Yemen, but not as big a threat as portrayed by the government.

The governor of Shabwa described the militants in Hawta as ''a group of rogue men who have deviated from religion and norms." He told the state news agency that they were mainly foreigners, not Yemenis.

Another government official told CNN that the military operation was in response to a militant attack last week on a multi-billion dollar pipeline carrying liquefied natural gas.

A senior defense official told CNN that the U.S. military has been providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance help during the offensive but stressed that Yemeni forces were primarily responsible for its planning and execution.

"The Yemeni government understands the threat within its own borders, to themselves and their people," the defense official said.

Human rights groups have voiced concern about the siege on Hawta. Human Rights Watch said the Yemeni Red Crescent was estimating that the fighting had displaced as many as 12,000 people from their homes.

The raid on al Qaeda comes as an international Friends of Yemen group held a ministerial meeting Friday in New York. The wider dangers of terrorism in Yemen were at the heart of the discussion.

Alan Duncan, Britain's international development minister said Yemen has agreed to a tough reform package in exchange for funds from the International Monetary Fund.

"We're looking at poverty programs, we're looking at trying to reduce the fiscal deficit, we're looking as well at trying to reduce corruption and trying to make the government effective in local areas," Duncan said. "So a lot of expertise is coming together to try and stop this country from becoming a complete mess."

The senior official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity said it was no surprise that the government announced the Hawta military campaign was successful on the same day as the Friends of Yemen meeting took place.

The Friends of Yemen group was formed after the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines trans-Atlantic flight as it landed in Detroit, Michigan, on December 25.

The suspect in that incident, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, has pleaded not guilty to six U.S. terrorism charges. He was reportedly armed in Yemen and trained for his mission by Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who is believed to have prepared AbdulMutallab for his operation. Al-Awlaki remains at large.

The Obama administration has also stepped up its attention on Yemen.

Last week, Brennan, the counterterrorism advisor, affirmed U.S. military support with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. Embassy said.

Another counterterrorism official told CNN the administration recognizes that "not enough is being done in Yemen" to meet the growing challenge posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

"We need to scale up efforts to disrupt the group," said the official, who spoke about sensitive issues on the condition of anonymity.

Part of that effort includes the possibility of adding armed CIA drones to help fight the increasing threat of al Qaeda in Yemen, a U.S. official said last month.

"It's not good what the government is doing," said the senior government official. "Yes, we have al Qaeda in our country, and their numbers are growing, but it's not as bad as they want the U.S. to believe."

He also took issue with the government's strategy.

He said the government should have gone after terrorists in a less showy manner and not announce it so publicly. Al Qaeda, he said, is prepared for a long, slow fight. A campaign that lasts a few days will only manage to draw fierce retaliation and turn local residents against the government.

"These kinds of attacks anger locals in the town, people who don't support al Qaeda," the official said. "So it can turn them against the government and then that can be an incentive for them to join up with al Qaeda or other militants."

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report.