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Yemen’s Ties to Terrorism a Lingering Threat

December 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Yemen has taken center stage in recent weeks for being a base of operations for Islamic extremists. Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan speaks with Jeffrey Brown about the nation's ties to terrorism.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now: more on the country that’s become the latest focus of terrorism: Yemen.

Earlier today, we begin with a Washington — I talked with Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, a short time ago by phone.

Sudarsan Raghavan, welcome.

So, it’s now known that Mr. Abdulmutallab was in Yemen recently, but apparently not considered a threat. Can you add to what is known about what he was doing there?

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Sure.

He arrived in August to take an Arabic-language course at a language institute in Sanaa’s Old City. This is the second time in — in Yemen. He had taken a similar course at the very same school in 2005.

What we know is that he — he — he attended a course in August and September, but then abruptly disappeared. The — the people I spoke to at the school today said that, in October — from October on, he didn’t show up to his courses. And that’s basically where the investigation is heading. The Yemeni authorities are looking, are really trying to piece together where he was between October and December.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about the group that has taken responsibility here called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula? What is known about it, how strong, how — how much — where — what its leadership is like?

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Sure.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has its roots in a 2006 jail break, in which 23 al-Qaida operatives had escaped from a maximum-security prison in the capital. One of them was — was — was Nasser al-Wahayshi, who later became — who is now the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

In January of this year, the Yemeni branches and the Saudi Arabian of al-Qaida branch merged to create this new entity. It’s a very organized united. I mean, they have a monthly online magazine. They seem to put out communiques and videos pretty frequently on jihadist forums.

From what I understand, there’s — they — they have about — roughly about 100 or so hard-core followers, and they do include people from — from France, Germany, and Australia, I have been told, as well as — as well as foreign fighters from Egypt and Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you how much popular support it has there? I mean, you’re — you’re — you’re on the ground. What — what do you see in terms of any support for it or feeling for it on the streets?

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Well, you don’t see any graffiti or outright, you know, support for al-Qaida, but you’re also talking about a country that has sent — over the years, has sent thousands of fighters to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, basically fighting to liberate Muslim lands from non-Muslims.

And, in this sense, there’s a — there’s this great sympathy for al-Qaida because of their — of their core message of protecting Muslims and fighting for Muslims. But, at the same time, most Yemenis certainly I have spoken to don’t support the tactics they use. I mean, the last thing they want to see is Yemen becoming another Pakistan, where you’re seeing suicide bombs happening in the streets every single day.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about Yemen as a potential failed state? You know the discussion about this, whether it’s the kind of place where terror groups can kind of fill a power vacuum.

What do you see, again, just around the country, or — or looking at how government works or doesn’t work? What do you see?

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Yes, I wouldn’t called it a failed state. I would say it is a failing state.

I mean, the government is facing numerous challenges. It’s got a civil war in the north. It has got a — deal with a secessionist movement in the south. Its — the economy is crumbling. There’s huge amounts of unemployment, poverty. The oil money, oil resources are dwindling, as is the water.

So, they’re facing numerous challenges. And there’s vast stretches of — of the country in which — basically ungoverned, and which provides a perfect haven and recruiting ground for al-Qaida militants.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about any possible U.S. involvement? There are still questions about what — to what degree the U.S. is helping in any of the recent airstrikes. Is that something you see, or is that behind the scenes? Or what can you tell us?

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: It’s very much behind the scenes. It’s — it’s very much of a covert war, you might say. The — the Americans are — are — have acknowledged to — to helping the Yemenis with intelligence and other assistance.

The Yemenis on the ground claim that they have seen American jets and missiles hitting Yemeni territories, but both the Americans and Yemenis’ government has denied this.

But, certainly, what is clear is that the American support is escalating. And in the wake of this — the attack in Detroit, the attempted bombing in Detroit, most — many people here expect this — the American involvement to increase.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post, talking to us from Yemen, thank you very much.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: My pleasure.