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Years After Attack on USS Cole, Focus Back on Yemen

January 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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More than nine years since a suicide attack off the coast of Yemen killed 17 Americans on the U.S.S. Cole, the failed plot to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit has put the focus back on the Arab world's poorest nation. Gwen Ifill reports.
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GWEN IFILL: For most Americans, the small country of Yemen, south of Saudi Arabia, was relatively obscure until October of 2000. That’s when two suicide bombers attacked the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in the Gulf of Aden. Seventeen Americans were killed. Now Yemen is in the crosshairs once again, after an al-Qaida offshoot there claimed responsibility for the attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. Secretary of State: The situation in Yemen is a top concern.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary of State Clinton summed up the situation today after meeting with the prime minister of Qatar.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: The instability in Yemen is a threat to regional stability and even global stability. And we’re working with Qatar and others to think of the best way forward to try to deal with the security concerns.

GWEN IFILL: Part of the challenge is that Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country. More than a third of its 23 million people are without work.

The country has also suffered a decades-long civil war involving periodic rebellion and insurgency along the border with Saudi Arabia and the frontier between the once divided north and south. The situation grew worse when two dozen terror suspects escaped from a high-security prison in 2006.

Since then, al-Qaida’s Yemen arm has claimed responsibility for trying to kill a member of the Saudi royal family last August and for attacking the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa 2008. Nineteen people were killed. The U.S. stepped up military and intelligence aid to $67 million last year and plans to double it this year.

Over the weekend, U.S. General David Petraeus met with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and he praised last month’s raids that killed 60 militants.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, U.S. Central Command: Indeed, there has been sharing of intelligence, of information and so forth, two-way street, because the intelligence sources of Yemen are very, very good as well.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama also pledged his support to drive al-Qaida from Yemen in his weekly radio address.

For more on the al-Qaida threat in Yemen, we turn to Richard Barrett, the coordinator of the al-Qaida monitoring team at the U.N. He returned from Yemen in mid-December. And Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University, he travels to the country frequently and was there just last summer.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Johnsen, what do we know, if anything, about the nature of this threat that was suspected involving the embassy closures?

GREGORY JOHNSEN, Princeton University: Well, we don’t know a great deal.

It’s being reported that the Yemeni military lost about six trucks. And there’s a concern that al-Qaida militants may have captured these trucks, which held munitions and arms. This is something that al-Qaida has done repeatedly. When General Petraeus last visited the country in July of 2009, I was in the country at the time in Yemen, and General Petraeus really brought the message to President Saleh that, you need to take the fight to al-Qaida.

President Saleh responded quite quickly. He dispatched military to fight al-Qaida. The army performed poorly, and al-Qaida took trucks that time as well.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Barrett, explain to us exactly what the history is of why it is that Yemen, of all places, would become a hotbed for suspected al-Qaida terrorism.

RICHARD BARRETT, United Nations: Well, as you said in your earlier report, it’s been associated with al-Qaida for some years.

Indeed, the attack on USS Cole in 2000 was a pretty seminal event for al-Qaida. And there was a big network behind that. And many Yemenis have gone to the Afghan-Pakistan border area to fight and indeed to Iraq as well, in particular in sort of 2004, 2005.

And I think one of the reasons for that is that the Yemeni authorities have always relied on some sort of association with the tribes to manage the country. There are many weaknesses in the country, as you pointed out earlier. And without a close association with the tribes, it’s difficult for the central authorities to sort of deal with any of them.

And, so, the al-Qaida groups have been able to form alliances themselves with the tribes — some of them are members of these tribes, too — and, in a way, sort of take advantage of the hospitality offered by the tribes, and in particular, since the Saudi authorities have been so successful in pushing al-Qaida out of Saudi Arabia, Yemen has become a sort of focus for regional activity.

And I think that the joining of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia with al-Qaida in Yemen in January 2009 really gave the groups there a real boost to think, yes, they could perform acts outside the — you know, the territory of Yemen.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Johnsen, what — how many people are we talking about? Hundreds? Thousands? Dozens?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, it’s really difficult to tell.

I think the estimates of about 300 individuals or around that number is fairly accurate. But the problem with that number is that it’s a little misleading. So, this Nigerian individual who — the would-be bomber who attempted to bring down the airliner, he wouldn’t have been among these three 300 individuals.

The two suicide bombers in Yemen that carried out attacks in Hadramout and then in Sanaa in March of 2009 wouldn’t have been among this number in the low hundreds. So, you really have a problem where you have individuals who self-identify as al-Qaida, as well as a great number of people around them who are easily radicalized, easily recruited to be suicide bombers, and offer material support to al-Qaida.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about the U.S. role. We saw General Petraeus go there this weekend. And we know there have been lots of conversations and encouragement from the U.S. toward the Yemeni government. Are they stepping up to do what the U.S. would like to see them to do to eradicate this?

RICHARD BARRETT: Well, when we’re talking about al-Qaida in Yemen, I think it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with really the second incarnation of al-Qaida there.

The U.S. and Yemeni governments cooperated quite closely after September 11 and did a very good job of destroying the organization. But really lapsed vigilance by the Yemeni as well as the U.S. government allowed al-Qaida, following the prison break that you talked about in your report, to really rebuild and essentially resurrect itself up from the ashes.

GWEN IFILL: We talk about — Mr. Barrett, we talk about lapsed vigilance. Also, we have heard about people who not only have broken out of prison, but detainees from Guantanamo who were released back to Yemen, six of the 97 who were being held there. Has that also served to encourage — to make al-Qaida flourish?

RICHARD BARRETT: Well, indeed.

One of the senior sort of theologians, if you can grace him with that title, is somebody who he was in Guantanamo. And then two of the Saudi Arabians who joined with the Yemeni branch in January of last year were ex-Guantanamo. There — one of them now who has gone back to Saudi Arabia and given himself up.

And, so, clearly there are these people who are prepared to continue the fight. But I think, when you look at all the people who have been through the Saudi program, and indeed all the people who have come out of Guantanamo, still fairly low number that have gone back to support terrorism.

I think now there’s a challenge, though, of course, with the 90-odd people that remain in Guantanamo who are Yemeni citizens, as to what will happen with them when the facility there is finally closed.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Johnsen, does this sound familiar to you at all to what we’re going through with Pakistan, which is trying to get the government to cooperate in rooting out cells, and whether the government cooperates depends a lot on how much U.S. aid is coming their way?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Yes, I think that’s a very good parallel.

And I think it should be pointed out that there are no easy or obvious solutions when it comes to dealing with al-Qaida in Yemen. The United States shouldn’t be under any illusions. It’s not going to defeat al-Qaida there today, tomorrow, next month, or even next year.

The — al-Qaida there just too strong and too entrenched. There’s really no magic missile answer to the problem of al-Qaida. It is going to take a great deal of patience. It’s going to take a very nuanced, a localized, and a multifaceted response by the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Barrett, was there — we had Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who was a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, on the program last week. And she said that we needed to get ahead of the failure curve.

Do you know — can you define for that — for us what you think that might mean?

RICHARD BARRETT: Yes, I think that there’s still a problem in exposing al-Qaida for what it is truly is. I mean, it’s a very — just, really, a criminal organization which sort of exploits people’s sense of lack of justice or whatever grievance they have, to say that all Muslims are under attack from the West.

But, when you look at the facts, it’s pretty clear immediately that, in fact, most of the victims of al-Qaida-related terrorism are Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. In fact, between 2006-2008, 98 percent of victims of al-Qaida-related terrorism were Muslims in Muslim-majority countries.

So, I think we need to get ahead of the sort of failure curve by trying to undermine the appeal that al-Qaida still has. I mean, it’s all very well to kill some of the leaders or — and stop suicide bombings and things. That’s excellent work. But, at the same time, you have to stop the generation, if you like, of new al-Qaida supporters and leaders coming through.

GWEN IFILL: And, Professor Johnsen, have we been being serious enough in paying attention to the warnings? We know there was a previous bombing of a U.S. embassy. We know that there was an attempt on the Saudi royal family. We know that there have been these prison breaks.

Have we been, as a country, the U.S., been paying close enough attention since the Cole bombing to the threat there?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: U.S. attention there has really waxed and waned. So, it’s something that, immediately after September 11, it’s a great priority and the U.S. puts a lot of aid in. Then, after November 2003, when it looks as though the problem has been defeated, U.S. aid sort of retreat and goes elsewhere. Then, after the embassy bombing in 2008, U.S. aid is there once again.

And, when I was in Yemen and talked to a number of different individuals from the government, from journalists, tribesmen, everyone really told me the same thing. And that is there is a great and, I think, growing fear in Yemen that, if the al-Qaida problem were to go away, U.S. aid and U.S. interest in Yemen would also go away.

GWEN IFILL: Gregory Johnsen at Princeton and Richard Barrett of the United Nations, thank you both very much.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Thank you.