WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said there is no formal intelligence-sharing agreement with the Iranian-backed Houthis who have taken over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and forced the resignation of U.S.-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, threatening U.S. counter-terrorism efforts there.
However, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said U.S. counter-terrorism efforts continue, acknowledging “it is fair to say” the U.S. has a relationship with the Houthis “as a participant in the process” to defeat Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
“The Houthis will certainly have reason to talk to intelligence partners,” Kirby said.
The question arose following published reports by WND and Al-Monitor quoting senior U.S. intelligence official Michael Vickers, who indicated that despite the political unrest in Yemen, the U.S. had developed an intelligence relationship over the past few months with the Houthis that may allow the U.S. to continue its counter-terrorism effort against AQAP.
If the government in Sanaa were to totally collapse, analysts say AQAP stands to benefit the most, since it gives the jihadist group that claimed responsibility for the Jan. 7 Paris terrorist attack even more areas in which to operate.
Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Vickers spoke to Al-Monitor after his recent off-the-cuff remarks before an audience of the Washington-based Atlantic Council, saying it is a “safe assumption” that the U.S. maintains intelligence ties with the Houthis.
The comment suggested a major policy change by the Obama administration, as the Houthis have been openly hostile to the U.S. and to Iran in combating AQAP in Yemen.
Yemeni security services that provide intelligence to U.S. drone operators for the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command reportedly have been taken over by the Houthis.
Vickers similarly sought to clarify his Atlantic Council remarks in an email to Foreign Policy magazine.
He said his comments to Al-Monitor were incorrect.
“The U.S. has a well-established, collaborative counterterrorism partnership with the Yemeni government, which includes operations, training and intelligence agreements to counter the shared threat we face from AQAP,” Vickers said. “The security situation in Yemen remains very fluid; we are watching the situation very closely.
“We do not have an intelligence sharing agreement with the Houthis. Intelligence sharing requires formal agreements, similar to the one between the U.S. and Yemeni government,” he said.
Kirby confirmed that U.S. counter-terrorism operations continue in Yemen despite the political turmoil in the country, suggesting that there is some kind of liaison with the Houthis and that the Houthis were in control of the agencies that have provided intelligence to the U.S. for ongoing drone attacks and U.S. special operators in Yemen.
Earlier, another Pentagon spokesman, when asked whether the Houthis were in control of such agencies, said that “you didn’t hear it here.”
With the prospect of Houthis controlling the intelligence agencies in Sanaa, Kirby, in response to WND asking whether or not the Houthis are assisting in information-sharing with the U.S. for operational targeting, said he would not talk about specifics on counter-terrorism.
In his comments before the Atlantic Council, Vickers indicated some counter-terrorism operations, such as drone flights against AQAP targets in Yemen, could continue even with the Houthis in charge of the capital.
Vickers said the priority will continue to be confronting AQAP, noting it is “probably the most dangerous of al-Qaida’s organizations in terms of sophistication of its technology and its aim to launch sophisticated attacks.”
He added that the amount of territory across North Africa and the Middle East that comprises a safe haven for the global jihadist threat is “greater than at any time in our history.”
As WND recently reported, AQAP has become even more dangerous with indications that elements of the Sunni jihadist group are swearing allegiance to ISIS.
Houthis control much of the northern part of Yemen, which includes the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, but AQAP controls vast amount of territory in the southern part of the country.
Slavin said that while the Houthis use similar slogans as Iran – “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews and Long Live Islam” – an alliance of convenience between the U.S. and the insurgent group has emerged against the spread of AQAP.
The prospect of further U.S. cooperation – even behind the scenes – with the Houthis also may be emerging amid the increasing effort by the U.S. to reach an accommodation with Iran on its nuclear program.
The Houthis represent Shiites in Yemen, who comprise about a third of Yemen’s population of 25 million.
While the Houthis have been seeking a transitional government under Yemeni President Hadi, who just submitted his resignation, they have not been seeking the government’s overthrow.
The Yemeni parliament that remains in place is set to discuss further the prospect of a political settlement with the Houthis, who initially were offered some concessions but not enough.
Abu al-Malek Yousef al-Fishi, an ideologue of the Houthis, proposed setting up a presidential council that would include the Houthi-led groups, the army and some political parties.
In a Twitter message, Fishi said that with the resignation of Hadi, Yemen was heading toward “security, stability, tranquility and prosperity.”
“I propose setting up a presidential council of the honorable revolutionary and political components, and in which the army, security and popular committees will be represented, so everybody will participate in managing what remains of the transitional period,” Fishi said.
With Hadi’s resignation, the head of the Yemeni parliament now takes charge of the country.
Just after Hadi resigned, Yemeni Prime Minister Khalid Bahah also resigned, saying he didn’t want to be part of the country’s collapse.
That left the head of the Yemeni parliament, Yahya al-Rayi, temporarily in charge.
Analysts say Rayi, who has the backing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, tends to be pro-Houthi.