Al-Qaeda militants have seized the opportunity of the disorder in Yemen to make gains on the ground there, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday.
“The situation (in Yemen) is still obviously very unsettled and there are a number of different warring parties the Houthis are one and AQAP is another, that have seized the opportunity of the disorder there and the collapse of the central government,” Carter said during a visit to Tokyo.
Speaking at a news conference, Carter said the United States was particularly concerned about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the powerful regional wing of the jihadist movement, as in addition to its regional ambitions it had the ambition to strike Western targets, including the United States.
Referring to AQAP activity in Yemen, he said, “we see them making direct gains on the ground there as they try to take territory, seize territory in these battle lines ...we are observing that - AQAP participating in that kind of fighting.”
He said the United States, which has waged a covert drone campaign against AQAP, would continue to combat the threat posed by the militants.
“Obviously it’s always easier to conduct counter-terrorism operations when there is a stable government willing to cooperate in place. That circumstance obviously doesn’t exist in Yemen. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to take steps to protect ourselves. We have to do it in a different way, but we do and we are,” Carter said.
AQAP militants reportedly made gains in Yemen on Tuesday, as gunmen believed to be from the group stormed a remote border post with Saudi Arabia.
Sources in Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramawt said the gunmen took over the desert base near Manwakh, about 440 km (270 miles) northeast of the capital Sanaa, killing at least two soldiers including the senior border guard officer.
The attack happened less than a week after al Qaeda gunmen attacked the Arabian Sea port of Mukalla, in a sign that Yemen’s weakened army is failing to secure broad swathes of the country.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday the United States was speeding up arms supplies and bolstering intelligence sharing with the Saudi-led alliance bombing Iran-aligned Houthi militia in Yemen. He said the United States had also set up a coordination centre in Saudi Arabia.
Carter said the United States was providing the Saudis with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information “to assist them in their operations” and that he had discussed the issue with his Saudi counterpart on Tuesday.