WASHINGTON - The United States is facing increasing difficulty acquiring intelligence needed to run its stealth drone programme in Yemen, undermining a campaign against the most lethal branch of al Qaeda after Houthi rebels seized control of parts of the country’s security apparatus, U.S. officials say.
Gaps in on-the-ground intelligence could slow America's fight against a resurgent al Qaeda in Yemen and heighten the risk of errant strikes that kill the wrong people and stoke anti-U.S. sentiment, potentially making the militants even stronger in areas where al Qaeda is already growing.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels have taken up positions in and around several defence and intelligence installations whose teams had previously cooperated with Washington, cutting off key sources of information for drone-missile attacks, the officials told Reuters.
Turmoil in the wake of last week's collapse of a U.S.-backed Yemeni government after days of clashes in the capital Sanaa, has already forced the U.S. State Department to reduce staff and operations at the U.S. Embassy.
U.S. officials told Reuters last week that Washington has also halted some counter-terrorism operations, but described the measures as temporary.
The turmoil has also cast doubt over the future of a key partnership for Washington in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Only last September President Barack Obama touted cooperation with Yemen as a model in counter-terrorism.
AQAP claimed responsibility for shootings this month in Paris that killed 17 people and has been accused of plotting attacks against American interests.
The crisis in the Arab world's poorest country threatens to create a power vacuum that could allow AQAP to expand, while pushing Yemen toward a broader conflict between majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shi'ite Houthis, who are hostile to both the United States and al Qaeda.
U.S. officials said training of Yemeni special forces had ground to a halt in the capital, though some joint activities were continuing in the Sunni-controlled south.
Many U.S. personnel remain in place with Yemeni government forces at the southern al-Anaad air base, an intelligence post for monitoring the Al Qaeda group.
Stephen Seche, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010 and now works in Washington at a law firm, said, however, he expected collaboration between U.S. and Yemeni intelligence services to suffer.
"If there’s no leadership, there’s no clear direction, there’s no real motivation to do that,” he said.