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U.S. Linked to Airstrike on Terror Target in Yemen

March 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks to Margaret Warner about her reporting trip to Yemen and security concerns from off-shoots of al-Qaida taking root in the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret left Yemen last night.

I talked to her in Dubai a short time ago.

Margaret, in the middle of that interview, you talked to president about the airstrikes aimed at al-Qaida. What more can you tell us?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, I have been able to confirm, really at the highest levels of the U.S. and Yemeni governments, that one particular airstrike in December in Abyan Province in southern Yemen in which civilians were killed was, in fact, the work of the U.S.

Now, the Yemen government has said consistently the opposite. They have said they used U.S. intelligence assets, but that the Yemeni air force did the raid. The Yemeni government — that is, the Saleh administration — in fact told the parliament that, and, a few weeks ago, in fact, even publicly apologized to the families of some 40 or so civilians.

But, privately, they say it’s a — quote — “open secret” that they need U.S. airpower to do these kind of precision raids, even though that one, which was on a training camp, doesn’t sound terribly precision.

And one person in the president’s office the day of that interview said, “Yes, everyone knows it, but we deny it.”

The U.S. administration, at the same time, of course, doesn’t want it to be known that U.S. planes were used or U.S. assets were used in raids like this. But it is — I think it’s — I know for a fact that it is the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is clearly a very sensitive subject there in Yemen and here in Washington, as you say. Tell — why? What are the stakes? What’s going on?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, in my reporting in Yemen, what became clear is that the bargain the U.S. has made with the Yemenis to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the sort of new offshoot, or newly revived offshoot of al-Qaida, the bargain is, the Yemenis need the U.S. help, but it can’t have a U.S. face.

And, so, as we reported last night, the U.S. is there, and they admit the U.S. is there, with training and equipment and intelligence, but — but they want it perceived that there is no more.

Now, for the U.S., of course, in addition, the U.S. is trying very, very hard, say, in Afghanistan to reduce civilian casualties, because of the blowback. For the Saleh government in Yemen, it’s also very complicated. He has an opposition which, as I said, after this raid, really raked him over the coals and said, you’re letting Americans kill Yemenis.

And that’s when his government flatly denied it. And he has a complicated past himself with Islamists. But, right now, this party, this opposition party, which has fundamentalist — fundamentalist elements in it, is, of course, using it to kind of bludgeon him.

And I think it points to the complications more broadly of fighting al-Qaida in some of these countries.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, as you look at this, your reports yesterday and today, this sort of high-wire act vis-a-vis the U.S., I wonder, as you have been able to talk — you were talking to Yemenis both in and out of government — what are their attitudes towards the U.S. and towards Americans?

MARGARET WARNER: Actually, Jeff, on a personal level, they are perhaps the friendliest and most interested in Americans of any people that I have reported from or lands that I have reported from recently in the Muslim world. I didn’t pick up any sort of undercurrent of hostility toward me.

At the same time, people tell me they don’t want U.S. forces there. And, as you heard in that interview, I mean, President Saleh went on television last Friday night on Al-Arabiya to tell, not only his own constituents, but the whole Muslim world, that he — or the whole Arab world — that U.S. forces weren’t there. And that’s for a reason.

And, as I said, he has a complicated past. He used the sort of root stock of al-Qaida, which were the mujahedeen that came back from Afghanistan after fighting with bin Laden against the Soviets. He used them in his civil war 16 years ago in the south. So, everybody’s got all these complicated interwoven alliances and pasts.

And I think it is really less about what the average Yemeni on the street thinks. And I don’t think they’re thinking a lot about the fight against al-Qaida. They’re worrying about their next meal. But it’s very much part of the complicated politics in a country like Yemen, that having a U.S. face on this alliance could be very damaging.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Margaret Warner talking to us tonight from Dubai, thanks again. We will see you soon.