Thornberry: ISIS war leaves fewer resources for Yemen

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said Thursday the U.S. has shifted military assets away from Yemen and toward the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), leaving the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist threats from Yemen.  

The House Armed Services Committee chairman said the war against ISIS, combined with a tightened defense budget, has forced commanders to shift intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets — such as surveillance drones — from Yemen to Iraq and Syria. 

“We don’t have the ISR that we used to have, so when you got to move it to Iraq and Syria, you leave Yemen less covered than it used to be because you have to make choices, and it increases the danger to the country,” he said. 

Thornberry’s concerns were expressed before the collapse of the Yemeni government on Thursday, when its prime minister, president and Cabinet members resigned under pressure from Shiite rebels known as the Houthis. 

The collapse risks upending U.S. counterterrorism efforts there against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which U.S. officials say is al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate.

The administration has implemented a “light footprint” counterterrorism approach in Yemen that relies heavily on drones for surveillance of terrorist threats and for striking targets in the country. 

It also relies on a small presence of U.S. special operations forces to undertake missions and train local Yemeni forces to fight AQAP. The president had touted the success of that strategy as recently as September and suggested it could be a model for the war against ISIS. 

But in an indication the country was less safe for U.S. personnel, the administration announced Thursday evening it was reducing its embassy personnel there. 

Thornberry, who is also a member of the House Intelligence Committee, declined to quantify how fewer ISR assets there were in Yemen, but said, “There’s been a lot less activity there than there used to be.”

Thornberry clarified that he did not think the U.S. reducing ISR assets in Yemen were “a cause of the Houthi takeover” but said it still posed a risk to the U.S. 

“Yemen is the place from which the most serious threats against our homeland have emanated, and we still just have a limited amount of ISR available, and so if you’re going to do more [in Iraq and Syria], it’s going to come from somewhere,” he said. 

“Some of it comes from Africa and various places, but some of it inevitably has to come from Yemen,” he said. “There’s lots of very difficult, dangerous places in the world, and the more of them there are, the tighter we’re stretched,” he said.

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