in search of al qaeda
homethe journeyinside the tribal areasground zero: pakistandiscussion
Abubaker al-Qirbi

He is the foreign minister of Yemen. In this interview he describes the Yemeni government's efforts to track down Al Qaeda terrorists in collaboration with the U.S. military. However, he tells FRONTLINE that he believes poverty is a breeding ground for terrorism and criticizes the U.S. for not delivering on promised financial aid. This interview was conducted on Oct. 5, 2002.


Abubaker al-Qirbi photo
Abubaker al-Qirbi photo

Let's begin by describing Al Qaeda's presence in Yemen. How do you define it?

I think it's very difficult to define Al Qaeda presence in Yemen. If one goes back, I think one can define probably the presence of the Afghan Arabs in Yemen. Since the end of the war in Afghanistan, many of the Yemenis and many of the Yemen Arabs have returned back to Yemen.

At that time, I suppose, like everybody in the world -- or at least in the Middle East -- thought we are welcoming heroes who defeated the Soviet Union and liberated Afghanistan from communism, especially in many parts of the country. They came back; we understood their intention was to some of them to settle and get jobs and be integrated within the society. ...

It wasn't really until after the unification in 1990 [that] they started to intervene within the political system at that time, the multiparty system and trying to alienate with some political parties in the region, in the country. In 1994, it has become evident that they have a political agenda. Therefore it was important for Yemen to take action against the many, many Arabs who came to Yemen. I think between 1994, and maybe 1998 or 1999, we managed to deport almost around 90 percent of [the Afghan Arabs] out of the country.

How many people would that have been?

In the thousands. I think maybe 2,000-plus; 2,000 to 3,000.

Back to Saudi Arabia, back to Egypt, back to--

Well, they were given the choice to where they want to go. Some of them were actually holding European passports. There were a few who were holding American passports. Where they were given as an incentive to fight against communism is that they were offered American passports. I think this has already been reported in the media.

So they were deported, went to Europe, to Arab countries of their choice. Many of them actually went to many Arab countries, because they were afraid of being prosecuted if they went to their own countries as, for example, in Algeria or in Egypt. I suppose the Al Qaeda term really didn't come up until maybe 1998.

After the African embassy bombing?

After the African embassy bombing. Also the group of the British young men who came to Yemen, trying to blow up the Aden Hotel in Aden. Then it has become evident that there is a movement, Al Qaeda, terrorist group.

Yemen has also been known for its tolerance, as far as religion is concerned  I think this probably was conducive to [Al Qaeda] to come to Yemen.

Yemen, at that time, actually alerted the British and other countries that there has to be a very concerted effort, really, to trace these, and that it's not an isolated incident. Then, of course, the tremendous blow to Yemen was the Cole incident, USS Cole.

In 2000?

In 2000, October, 2000. I think that really initiated the first cooperation between Yemen and the United States, with the understanding that there are Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Prior to that, I think we used to look at them as Afghan Arabs, rather than Al Qaeda.

Why Yemen as a place where Al Qaeda takes hold?

I really do not understand that. I think probably because people felt that, until that time, there were no conflict between the Islamic groups and the government of Yemen; unlike many of the other Arab countries, where there were already the beginnings of conflict between, say, in Egypt, for example, where it has already been established that the government was after the Muslim groups in the country, extremist groups in the country.

Yemen has also been known for its tolerance, as far as religion is concerned. Therefore we were not sensitive to their religious commitments or religious beliefs. I think this probably was conducive to them to come to Yemen.

Because they could find haven here? They were not being discriminated against as religious extremists?

Exactly.

How many have you detained since 9/11? And how are these people?

Well, I think the number now is about 109. It's the latest figure I have. It may change. In the majority are people who have been in Afghanistan -- not necessarily Al Qaeda members or Al Qaeda operatives. But because they were in Afghanistan, the government, as a protective measure, feels that they should be arrested, interrogated to find out if they have any links to coordinate and exchange information with other countries like the United States, some Arab countries, some European countries, in case they have some of their names on the list of terrorists. The intention, of course, is once they are investigated and found either guilty or not guilty, the not guilty will be released. The guilty will be prosecuted in Yemen.

But some of these are people that have returned from Afghanistan after 9/11?

No, no. Some of them returned long before.

And some of them are people that returned after 9/11?

The minority.

I think your government said recently that there were 19 who had returned.

Yes, I think that, yes. I think that's about the figure is. But the majority have been here long before Sept. 11.

But if you've got 19 that you're holding now that have returned, you've got more than that most likely still hiding out. We know of some that are hiding out.

Well, yes, there are. There must be more hiding out. I think the evidence is the last incidents of 10 days ago, and the government was tracing a group of Al Qaeda operatives. They've arrested three of them, and two were killed in the encounter. I think this is the case in almost any country you can think of. We are always dealing with the tip of the iceberg. ...

But the concern in the world community is that you're not controlling all of your country. You have tribal areas that are beyond your control -- your government troops don't particularly like to go there -- and that these are easy safe havens for Al Qaeda.

Well, I think this is, again, disputable. I think big cities are a better haven for terrorists [than] the remote areas. Because I think in the remote areas, maybe it's easier to trace them then and track them than it is in the city with a million people. If you look where most of the Al Qaeda operatives are arrested, they are big cities.

Like Sana'a?

Like Sana'a. Yes, like Sana'a. Therefore I don't think, because you have remote areas, uncontrolled remote areas, that they necessarily are there, because if they are detected, then they can easily be dealt with.

The other point which is important in this regard is that, since Sept. 11, things have changed a great deal, because now the government has maintained presence in areas that it didn't feel before that there was a necessity to maintain a military or even a security presence. When you look at security and military presence in remote areas, you must take into consideration the cost of that to our country, which is broad, with limited resources. Having to mobilize forces with communication, with feeding the soldiers and so on is a tremendous cost, which goes at the expense of development in the country.

And you've lost lives.

And we've lost lives as well when we've confronted them. In spite of that, I think Yemen has now established 13 security outposts in the remote areas. ...

It kind of cuts both ways. On the one hand, you've stepped up your efforts to secure these tribal areas. You've got 13 new outposts. But that may make things safer now. It's also an indication you had quite a problem, and how much of the problem has been alleviated we don't really know.

No, I suppose that can be judged for in a number of fashions. If you look at things, say, until the beginning of this year, Yemen was famed for the kidnappings since the beginning of years. This year we've had nothing.

But you've had four terrorist incidents in 2002. You've had three incidents in 2001. Since the Cole bombing, you've had seven or eight significant incidents out here -- Al Qaeda-related.

Well, yes. But I think the government was able to arrest those responsible for them, and they are now to be prosecuted.

But going back to your argument of the tip of the iceberg -- that's what concerns people. They're saying Yemen's a small country. But you know we're arresting people in Karachi that are Yemenis. We're arresting people in Buffalo that are American Yemenis. Yemen is coming up in the news over and over again.

Well, but is there probably put a different argument, because most of those Yemenis who have proved terrorists were not brought up in Yemen. Those who are arrested in Buffalo are Yemenis who were brought up in the United States of America. Those who are from Saudi Arabia are also Yemenis who were living and brought up in Saudi Arabia. So what has turned them into terrorism is not the Yemen atmosphere. It must be a different atmosphere.

Fair enough. But some of them have come home to Yemen, and we're worried now--

Well, yes, I think we have some of them might have come back home because they feel that maybe they are less likely to be arrested. Some of them might have gone to other countries. You never know. But I think this is why it is important to maintain this intelligence cooperation between our intelligence and all countries.

What happened in Marib in December?

In December, the armed forces were moved to a small village in order to [hunt down] Al Qaeda operatives.

The U.S. gave you their names and told you that they wanted them arrested?

That's right, yes. And when the armed forces got to the tribal area -- you know there are tribal traditions about discussing the issue with the tribes. Unfortunately, as these negotiations were going on about handing the two operatives to the security forces, a helicopter came up hovering over the area.

The tribesmen got alerted, were anxious that they were going to be attacked. There was exchange of fire. In this exchange of fire, the Yemenis security forces lost about 22 soldiers. Unfortunately, the two who were supposed to be arrested managed to escape.

And they're still free?

They are still free, yes.

What are you doing to find them?

We are actually working together now with the United States, FBI, here in Yemen, trying to track them. Because again, you see, the problem is the logistic support our security forces needs -- how to trace their telephone calls, how to locate them whether they are if they are in these desert areas. I think this is where we feel that the American assistance can be a great help. It is not, I think, producing some results. ...

How is the U.S. helping you? Is it a help to have the U.S. in here with their men when you've got a population that's clearly angry with the U.S. over its policies in Iraq and Israel?

I think the U.S. helps Yemen, first, in training of our special forces. This is very important. I think our special forces are only newly established over maybe two and a half years ago.

And you're comfortable with Americans being here and training your troops?

Yes. ...

What can Yemen do to prevent itself from becoming a breeding ground, if it is, or a haven, if it is, for Al Qaeda?

First of all, let me put it this way: I think the government of Yemen and the people of Yemen would not expect Yemen to be a haven for terrorism. I think this is the strongest point that the government of Yemen has: that the people of Yemen are behind the government in its effort to uproot any terrorist groups. This is our first point of success in any attempt to combat terrorism, because unless you get the popular support before behind the government, whatever success you get from outside is going to be meaningless.

The second, of course, is that, Yemen since Sept. 11 has now established a better cooperation and exchange of information with many countries, including the U.S., Britain, Germany, and others. This helps a great deal, because now we are working together, rather than working individually and not knowing what others are doing and what information others have.

The third point is, since Sept. 11, our security forces are better trained, are in better shape to deal with this, as happened in two recent incidents. What I think is the challenge now is how to make sure that our cooperation and our partnership in combating terrorism does not deviate us from the issue of development in the country, because poverty, everybody says, is a breeding-ground for terrorism.

That's the swamp.

Poverty is also a cause for insecurity. I think this is why Yemen now is putting a lot of effort to get donors to help it in developing these remote areas, to make these people part of the civil society in the country. We are actually with the support of the United States, holding on Oct. 18 this month a donors meeting in Paris, where we are going to address these issues of development, of combating poverty, and all that go hand by hand. As you combat terrorism, we also produce results in the area of development. ...

Ramzi bin al-Shibh grew up here in Sana'a. He's a product, is he not, of this society?

Well, he's a product of the Afghan war; not of the being brought up in Yemen. You see, when the Afghan war started and you-know-who was after it and financed, OK? A lot of young people in Yemen were recruited with the belief that they are fighting for Islam and for the freedom of a Muslim country.

He was very young when he went there. At the end of the war, he would have been 17 or 18.

Yes. But they all went to Afghanistan with this belief that they are going to free Afghanistan. Some of them, after the end of the war, they went in the belief that they are going to establish a model Islamic state in Afghanistan. Everything turned wrong, as you can see now. ...

How much is the U.S. spending on security here? Do you have any idea?

No I don't have a figure. But I think it's not enough.

And there was a $400 million package, no?

Yes, but nothing has materialized. ...

What do you tell them?

Well, I suppose I think much is important. I think this is a killer position to them all. But to truly put it more strongly, combating terrorism is an expensive affair. It is not also an affair that can be dissociated from political and economic development in the country of establishing a democratic regime in the country. And this is all expensive.

Democracy in Yemen is now, for example, in this year, is going to take about 3 percent of our GNDP, if you look at the total cost of democracy in this year. If you look at security and maintaining high-alert security, that takes also a big chunk of the GNDP. A poor country like the United States could easily allocate $25 billion.

A rich country like the United States?

Yes. Now $25 billion is the GNDP for five years in Yemen. OK? So you can imagine the magnitude and the challenge when it comes to the cost of combating terrorism. ...

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to think -- and I'm not sure what Americans are supposed to think -- about Yemen. They see a country that's a little bit out of control, or maybe a lot out of control. You've got, for instance, al-Harethi and al Ahdal. They're still protected by a tribal elder. Why can't you arrest them? Why can't you take care of that situation?

Well, security forces are tracing them. We don't want to repeat the same mistake that happened in Marib. We get a lot of information, unfortunately late information. I think the American side is aware of it now, that between the time of getting the information that these two people are in a place and the time we take action, there is a period lag in which they move around. Therefore, one doesn't want to go just and attack an area without being absolutely sure that they are there, because this is going to maybe cause a lot of suffering to the innocent people. And we may lose also the sympathy and the support of these people. ...

So you're saying that these guys, al-Harethi and al Ahdal, actually may have sophisticated system of evading capture?

They may have. They may have. ...

Since December we're talking eight, nine months, 10 months that these guys have eluded your capture. And this is where Americans get frustrated. Why not let the Americans in? Why not let the Americans come and go on patrol?

If we are not sure that they are there, what is the benefit of the Americans going in? It is not an inability of catching them. It's an inability to locate them. This is where we need the sophisticated equipment from the Americans, in order to be able to trace them and locate them. This is what they are helping us with now.

[Editor's Note: On Nov. 4, 2002, an unmanned CIA aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying al-Harethi, killing him and five others.]

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