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From Yemen, Rising Concerns About Al-Qaida

March 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As growing al-Qaida activity in Yemen gives rise to increasing U.S. security concerns, Ray Suarez talks to correspondent Margaret Warner about her ongoing reporting trip in the Arabian Peninsula.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now a preview from Margaret Warner of her reports from Yemen. She’s there to report on the growing presence of al-Qaida, among other things.

Ray Suarez spoke to her earlier today from the southern city of Aden.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner, welcome.

Let’s begin with the efforts of the government in Yemen. Have they been stepping up their attacks on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula?

MARGARET WARNER: They have very much, Ray.

They — in the last few months, they have launched both raids on suspected hideouts, as well as airstrikes. One here on Sunday was very well placed. They hit two men on a motorcycle in Abyan Province — it’s not far from here in Aden — and killed both of them.

There was another strike on Monday. So, clearly, they are stepping up the level of attacks. And they say it’s going to continue.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the Yemeni government see al-Qaida’s presence in Yemen as the kind of threat the United States does?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, they do, Ray, though they have competing sets of threats, because, as you know, they have a — they had a rebellion in the north. Currently, there is a cease-fire. And they have a secessionist movement down here in the south.

And, naturally, the central government, President Saleh, is also concerned with the threats that he believes those pose to his stability. But, ever since there were some threats against members of the Yemeni security forces last summer, I’m told that that was the catalyst that made them take the threat of al-Qaida extremely seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: Have there been any new developments in the story of Sharif Mobley, the New Jersey man arrested in Yemen for terrorist ties?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, he is in custody, as you know. He is being interrogated. I have not been able to find out whether he is giving up anything useful.

What I have learned is that both Yemeni and U.S. security forces, but, at first, just the FBI and U.S. intelligence, had been tracking him for some time. He’s been here for at least a year. And, at some point, they alerted Yemeni security officials. It’s not clear whether they wanted him picked up right away.

He was in contact with al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni-American cleric, and there was hope that he might lead security officials to al-Awlaki. But the other telling detail is that there are other Americans of Arab descent, Muslim faith, who are said to be here, ostensibly studying Arabic, but who fit the same profile and they are following.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing the story of Sharif Mobley has in common with that of the attempted Christmas bomber on the jet bound for Detroit and the accused shooter Major Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, is Sheik Anwar al-Awlaki.

Tell us about the search for the American-born cleric in Yemen. Has there been any progress in the attempt to capture this man?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ray, al-Awlaki, they regard as a serious threat, because they — U.S. intelligence believes he has gone from just being an inspirational figure, urging, in general, young Muslims to wage jihad against the West, to being an operational one — that is, he is both recruiting, actively recruiting, via e-mail on the Internet, and also giving sort of tactical and technical advise.

And one U.S. official said he is very dangerous because he understands the West and the U.S. better than most Yemenis. So, he’s in their sights, but he’s holed up in a mountainous region in Shabwa Province. He is said to be very operational savvy in terms of how he communicates. And he is guarded and protected by his own tribe, the Awlaks, who are not only very powerful in their own right in the region, but in fact were the sultans of the region back in the British era.

And, so, he is going to be very difficult to dislodge.

RAY SUAREZ: And, finally, Margaret, what will you be doing on your reporting trip in Yemen? What stories are you preparing for your series?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ray, I came here because Yemen is regarded as — as the U.S. puts more pressure on al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, here in Yemen is believed to be the most potent of the new al-Qaida franchises worldwide.

So, we are going to be looking at the strength of al-Qaida here, what the U.S. and Yemeni governments are doing to try to combat it, and, finally, more broadly, as much as we can in just two weeks here, what makes Yemen tick.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks, Margaret. Stay safe.

MARGARET WARNER: I will, Ray. Thanks a lot.