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Yemen Lacks Counterterrorism Resources to Halt Jihadists

March 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As part of a series of reports from Yemen, Margaret Warner reports on the country's anti-terrorism units on the Arabian Peninsula and the impact of military aid from the U.S. to the impoverished country in the fight against al-Qaida.

GWEN IFILL: Next tonight: combating terrorism on the Arabian Peninsula.

The government of Saudi Arabia arrested 113 alleged al-Qaida militants today who they said were planning to attack oil facilities. Fifty-one of them were from neighboring Yemen.

That’s where Margaret Warner has been this week, reporting on how that nation is fighting terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: Meet the face of Yemen’s covert fight against jihadists. These are the ranks of Yemen’s counterterrorism unit, hunting down al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Today’s training was a mock assault on an AQAP safe house with live fire. A similar raid three weeks ago netted nearly a dozen militants authorities say were preparing a suicide attack in the capital, Sanaa.

The major in charge — we can’t say his name or show his face — is open about the help his unit gets from U.S. and British special forces.

MAJOR: We don’t have enough resources for training. We could implement something, but not at the level that we want, without the Americans and the British.

MARGARET WARNER: The exercise we just saw is at the heart of the strategy against al-Qaida here, a well-trained Yemeni counterterrorism force that can take on enemy on its own, with U.S. assistance very much in the background. The alternative would be American boots on the ground, a prospect both the U.S. and Yemen government are determined to avoid.

STEPHEN SECHE, U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Yemen: I think it’s a very formidable foe. They have a lethal presence in this country. They have demonstrated that on a number of occasions.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Seche, America’s ambassador to Yemen, should know.

STEPHEN SECHE: So, they were firing from out here at my car. They blew the windshield out.

MARGARET WARNER: His compound has twice been a target of AQAP attacks. A dozen embassy personnel died in one bloody assault, and the ambassador’s own home took a hit, too.

STEPHEN SECHE: Their intent is to attack American targets, to destabilize Yemen by extending a message that you cannot be safe in this country. You cannot conduct normal business. So, stay away. Let Yemen become more unstable, more weak, more fragile, and al-Qaida steps in and fills that vacuum its own kind of operations and its own intentions.

MARGARET WARNER: After an AQAP-trained operative nearly blew up a plane over Detroit last Christmas, Washington more than doubled its military aid to this impoverished nation to just $150 million.

ABUBAKR AL-QIRBI, Yemeni minister of foreign affairs: I think this increase, unfortunately, is making up for lost time.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s a day late and many dollars short, says Foreign Minister Abubakr Al-Qirbi.

ABUBAKR AL-QIRBI: If the money has come five years ago and continued to build out counterterrorism units, we would be much better off today than we are.

MARGARET WARNER: But, clearly, money is being spent on security. Checkpoints ring major cities to intercept AQAP fighters trying to enter from Yemen’s tribal areas.

Another front, Yemen’s coastline of stretching nearly 1,200 miles along the Red and Arabian Seas, and the ancient port city of Aden. From Victorian days on, the British defended their empire from here. But, for the United States, Aden Port harbors a darker history.

This is the place where, in October 2000, while the Navy destroyer USS Cole was refueling, that a small boat packed with explosives pulled alongside and blew itself up. Seventeen American sailors died. And this attack, for much of world, put the al-Qaida threat on the map.

Colonel Lotf Al-Baradi commands the Yemeni coast guard’s Aden contingent. His tiny fleet of U.S. and British-equipped boats patrols these waters against piracy, weapons and drug smuggling, illegal immigrants from Africa, and now a new threat.

COLONEL: Now, we eventually have the al-Qaida. The Al-Shabab mujahedeen announced that they are going to help al-Qaida in Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER: Though Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country, more than 100,000 Somalis have fled their war-torn homeland for refuge here. It wouldn’t be hard for Somalia’s al-Qaida-wannabe, Al-Shabab, to infiltrate their ever-swelling ranks.

Also in the Yemenis’ military arsenal, with U.S. assistance, airstrikes targeting AQAP leaders and militants in the tribal provinces. Civilian casualties have stirred criticism of President Saleh’s government.

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI, development consultant/political analyst: Dealing with the symptoms of terrorism is not enough.

MARGARET WARNER: Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani is a development consultant and political analyst in Sanaa.

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: They will have to readjust the balance between the use of military force and the use of development. The next thing should be development and good police work and dealing with the root cause of terrorism, which is injustice and poverty.

MARGARET WARNER: That is another weapon in Yemen’s fight against al-Qaida: development. One governor, Ahmed Al-Misri, is trying it in his province of Abyan, a no-go zone for foreigners, amidst numerous kidnappings, AQAP activity, and deadly airstrikes.

He drove us through a checkpoint into Abyan under armed guard.

How long has that restriction been in effect?

AHMED AL-MISRI, governor, Abyan Province, Yemen (through translator): It started since al-Qaida and such groups started getting more active in Yemen. It’s for their safety.

MARGARET WARNER: As we rolled past miles of undeveloped beaches and dirt-poor towns, Al-Misri spoke of his desire to attract foreign investment and jobs.

AHMED AL-MISRI (through translator): If they come and put their money in Yemen, it will definitely change the situation.

MARGARET WARNER: He’s pinning his hopes on this massive government-built stadium to host the Gulf Cup soccer games six months from now, misplaced priorities, critics say, in this poor nation, to whom international donors are giving billions in development aid.

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: We’re not putting them — our money where that money should be. And corruption has taken a good part of our budget, and there’s no political will to fight corruption.

MARGARET WARNER: How high up does it go?

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: The whole system is infected, the entire system.

ABUBAKR AL-QIRBI: I’m not denying that there is corruption in Yemen, but there is exaggeration, and there is also an excuse. It’s used being as an excuse by donors not to deliver.

MARGARET WARNER: In a country with such high illiteracy, there’s no exaggerating the importance of a third element in any anti-extremism campaign, the battle for hearts and minds. Yemen’s government is taking a crack at that, too.

The first targets were the hardest cases, 600 accused jihadists put through the so-called dialogue program to rehabilitate their views.

Human rights lawyer Khalid Al-Anesi, who represents Yemenis detained in Guantanamo, says the program was a sham to satisfy the Americans.

KHALID AL-ANESI, Yemen Human Rights Attorney (through translator): The dialogue program was just a game. It gave Yemen the chance to say, we have the dialogue with those people, and they were converted to the right path.

MARGARET WARNER: But Hamoud Al-Hitar, minister of Islamic endowment, says he hopes to revive the program if more Guantanamo detainees return home.

HAMOUD AL-HITAR, Yemeni minister of Islamic endowment (through translator): The strongest evidence against those who question the dialogue committee is that those who have gone through it have not gone back and committed a terrorist attack.

MARGARET WARNER: That claim is impossible to prove. So is the success of a government media campaign aimed at popular opinion.

A government funded-movie, “The Losing Bet,” portrayed heroic government agents bringing down extremists trying to recruit young Yemenis. And people close to the president are promoting Yemeni-American rapper A.J. Masaed’s latest CD, which takes on extremism in the beats and rhymes of his new hip-hop number, “No Terrorists, Please.”

A.J.’s message to his young audience?

A.J. MASAED, rapper: I want you to make a difference in this world, and I don’t want you to be negative and just be full of hate. You know, through education and love and togetherness and all this, maybe this place would be better.

MARGARET WARNER: A better place the Yemeni people surely deserve.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret’s reports from Yemen continue later this week.