By Mohamed Sudam and Ulf Laessing
SANAA (Reuters) – Six al Qaeda militants were killed in an air strike in northern Yemen Friday in a stepped-up government campaign against the Islamist group.
Yemen, which gained a reputation as a haven for al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, came under the spotlight after crackdowns on the group in Pakistan and Afghanistan raised concern it was becoming a training and recruiting center for militants.
“Two cars carrying eight dangerous al Qaeda members were hit in an area between Saada and al-Jouf,” a Yemeni security official told Reuters. “Two may have survived and escaped.”
“The group included Qassem al-Remi, Ayed al-Shabwani, Ammar al-Waeli, and Saleh al-Teys,” the official said. The four were wanted by the Yemeni and U.S. security services.
“It is believed that Qassem al-Remi and Ayed al-Shabwani were killed in the air strike.”
Al-Shabwani was one of the most dangerous al Qaeda members who provided a hideout for other militants at his farm in Maarib, where their training took place, the official said.
Maarib is a mountainous eastern province where the oil and gas fields of major international companies are located.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University, said al-Remi’s death, if confirmed, would be “a very, very significant blow against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” though it would not necessarily make the whole group crumble.
“He is the most dangerous individual in the group based on his history, his statements and his role. He fought in Afghanistan and was central to rebuilding the organization and planning and conducting attacks.”
The security source in Yemen said Abu Ayman al-Masri, an Egyptian national known as Saleh al-Joufi in Yemen, was among the six killed today. He was the ideological brain of the group in Yemen.
The government was also trying to negotiate the surrender of U.S.-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, said to have traded emails with the American army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at a U.S. army base in November, a government official said.
Officials were in talks with members of Awlaki’s tribe in remote Shabwa province where the cleric is believed to be hiding to persuade him to surrender in return for not handing him over to U.S. authorities, the official said.
In December, Yemen said it might have killed Awlaki in an airstrike, but this was never confirmed.
Yemen stepped up its operations against al Qaeda after a Yemen-based wing of the group said it was behind an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on December 25 .
The foiled bombing has focused attention on the growing prominence of al Qaeda in Yemen and the expanding role of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in fighting it.
The Yemeni interior ministry said cooperation with the United States would not extend to stationing U.S. troops on Yemeni soil. “The war on terrorism is … to defend Yemen and its top interests,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The Yemeni-US cooperation in this regard in limited to exchanging intelligence, providing Yemen’s security apparatus with technological and military equipment, and assisting in training,” it said.
“This cooperation does not mean opening Yemen’s doors for US forces, or forces of any other country. Yemen’s sovereignty is a red line.”
A group of Yemen clerics signed a statement after a meeting in Sanaa Thursday saying Islam “requires all its followers to pursue jihad” if there were any foreign military intervention in the country.
Yemen declared open war on al Qaeda Thursday and warned citizens against aiding the global militant group. Troops were sent this week to join a drive against al Qaeda in 3 provinces.
The poor Arab country, home to 23 million people, has come under pressure to act against al Qaeda since attacks on its two main allies, Saudi Arabia and the United States, by militants from Yemeni soil.
Yemen also faces a Shi’ite revolt in the north and a separatist drive in the south.