In Yemen, Fears of Growing al-Qaida Presence

BY Larisa Epatko  January 4, 2010 at 5:14 PM EDT

Yemeni government forces killed two suspected al-Qaida militants on Monday, as U.S. and other embassies remained closed for a second day due to renewed threats by an offshoot terrorist group there.

The firefight between Yemeni forces and members of the regional terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula occurred in the city of Arhab, northeast of the capital San’a. The security forces were pursuing a group of suspected al-Qaida militants, including a senior figure, Nazeeh al-Hanaq. He escaped but two other fighters with him reportedly were killed.

Yemen has been carrying out attacks on al-Qaida hideouts in an effort to clamp down on the terror network’s hold within the country. A country of 23 million people, Yemen has also been grappling with a Shiite rebellion in the north and separatist unrest in the south, which have flared in recent days, according to media reports.

On Sunday, the U.S. and British embassies in San’a closed following renewed threats from the al-Qaida affiliate. The French, German and Japanese embassies also closed their doors.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the country’s instability at a press conference on Monday, and said the U.S. would decide on when to re-open the embassy as conditions allow: “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, and certainly we know that this is a difficult set of challenges but they have to be addressed,” she said.

Heather Murdock, a reporter for GlobalPost in San’a, said al-Qaida in Yemen merged with al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia about a year ago, and became known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The group said it provided the explosives to a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to take down an airliner on its way to Detroit with explosives hidden on his body on Dec. 25.

Al-Qaida in Yemen also has taken responsibility for past attacks, including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole while it was docked in the southern Yemen port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. “Most people say [al-Qaida is] growing, and its presence has been felt more strongly in Yemen” as of late, said Murdock.

A destabilized government in Yemen has enabled al-Qaida to take root there and operate without the scrutiny of the government, she said. The fallout of the threats and embassy closures in Yemen is still unfolding, she added, but people are expecting many will stay in their apartments, and schools and businesses are wondering if foreigners will return.

Editor’s Note: This post was updated at 7:45pm ET: On tonight’s NewsHour, Gwen Ifill spoke with Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University, and Richard Barrett, chief of the U.N. al-Qaida monitoring team, about the threat militants pose in Yemen.