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Yemen In Chaos Amid Reports Of Government's Collapse

U.S. military advisers are keeping a low profile in Yemen after Huthi rebels staged a near coup. Sources tell NPR that U.S. special operations forces are still doing operations, but nothing to antagonize the Huthis. Meanwhile, White House officials are meeting to see what the changes mean for the counter-terror fight that President Obama lauded as a success only five months ago.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Yemen's government has collapsed. The country's president and his cabinet resigned today. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi had been a staunch supporter of the U.S. counterterror efforts against al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen. That group has targeted the U.S. and recently claimed credit for the terrorist attack against the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Now, as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the U.S. is trying to understand how the political turmoil in Yemen will affect the counterterrorism fight.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The best way to describe Yemen at this moment is chaos and confusion. Rebel fighters from the Houthi movement had been fighting the government for months and yesterday they seized the presidential palace. The Houthis are Shiite Muslims in a majority Sunni country. They're allied with Iran and sharply critical of the U.S. counterterror efforts in their country. And the current Yemeni government, they complain, is corrupt and failed to provide basic services. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that U.S. diplomats in Yemen were scrambling to get a handle on events, but she said there's no doubt about the U.S. interest in Yemen.

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JEN PSAKI: I will say that our top priority in Yemen remains the counterterrorism effort, where we've been targeting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula for a number of years. That's ongoing.

BOWMAN: Ongoing because al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, is a particularly lethal offshoot of the terrorist group. One member of the group is an expert bomb maker. In recent years, AQAP has tried to place bombs on American bound airliners, including one over Detroit in 2009. To go after the group, the U.S. has relied on drone attacks for the last several years - about two dozen each year. The U.S. has also sent special operations forces to train the Yemeni military and has even flown Yemeni troops on operations to attack AQAP strongholds. That all led President Obama to make this statement last fall.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

BOWMAN: Was it a success when he was talking about it back in September?

BARBARA BODINE: No. We have been using the wrong tools by and large.

BOWMAN: Barbara Bodine served as ambassador to Yemen for four years starting in 1997. She says the U.S. can't just drop bombs. It must help the Yemeni people with their grievances, including a lack of jobs and education, which have spurred unrest.

BODINE: If you don't get at the economic drivers and you just go after the extremists' symptoms, you're never going to get ahead of the game.

BOWMAN: Bodine doubts the counterterror campaign has been successful against AQAP. U.S. counterterror experts disagree. They say many of the group's mid-level operatives have been killed in the military operations backed by the U.S. There is one point everyone agrees on. The Houthi rebels have been fighting against AQAP, and it's important to reach out to them even though their slogan is death to America, death to Israel. Again, Barbara Bodine.

BODINE: I think this is absolutely a group that we need to have connections with, work with, find the political leadership and see what we can do.

BOWMAN: In the meantime, officials tell NPR that both a drone campaign and the military training efforts have been put on hold until it's clear whether they have a government to work with in Yemen. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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