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Edmund Hull

The U.S. ambassador to Yemen, he previously served as the State Department's acting coordinator for counterterrorism. Hull coordinated the Nov. 4, 2002 missile strike that killed Al Qaeda's top operative in Yemen. He tells FRONTLINE that prior to Sept. 11, the Yemeni government had a "laissez-faire" attitude towards Islamic dissidents and extremists, but that has changed. He believes that since Sept. 11, Yemen has become "a less hospitable place than the Al Qaeda operatives anticipated." This interview was conducted on Oct. 6, 2002.


Edmund Hull photo
Edmund Hull photo

[How important is Yemen] in the overall war on terrorism?

I think Yemen is an important country. We know that, in Yemen, as in many other countries, Al Qaeda is present and active. We also know that there are historic connections between Yemen and bin Laden. By some accounts, bin Laden had looked at Yemen as a possible refuge if he were driven out of Afghanistan. So I think it's very important that we head off problems and resolve problems in Yemen as effectively as possible.

How present is Al Qaeda in Yemen?

Al Qaeda has a number of operatives here, a number of cells. It's not on the scale of Afghanistan, where you had fixed large-scale training camps. It's a rather lower number of people who are active and play important roles in the international Al Qaeda network.

How active?

We know that they are planning. We know that they are equipping. We have to presume they are training. The explosion that occurred in Sana'a on Aug. 9 was a clear indication of the kind of activity that they were undertaking.

I've talked to government officials who tell me that right now they're holding about 109. They're going through their files and interrogations and determining who's Al Qaeda and who's not. They'll let some of those go, presumably. But basically, other than a few people that they know are out there, there's only three or four Al Qaeda that are free.

I think there are three or four major Al Qaeda figures, but those figures can draw up on support from others. So it's more extensive than that. ...

So the major figures would be like al-Harethi or--

Abu Ali [al-Harethi] certainly is one whose been publicly identified. Abu Hassan is another. And there are additional Al Qaeda operatives.

These are some of the guys that were chased in Marib, but then got away?

The way you keep score in this game is very simple: How many Al Qaeda people are off the street, and how many are still out there, active and plotting

They had been located in Marib, and the government actions last December effectively flushed them from their traditional strongholds. They have been more or less on the run hiding since then.

But what kind of capacity do they have? What kind of support do they have? What kind of threat are they?

I think if we look at what occurred with the Cole, we have a pretty good indication of what they're capable of. They can acquire explosives; they can acquire other arms. They can put it together in an effective explosive device. And they can identify targets and plan effectively against targets.

But I meant these particular Al Qaeda suspects, who were in Marib and have now gone on the run. What do we know about their capability, their support?

Abu Ali is the leading Al Qaeda figure in Yemen, and as such, plays a leadership role. Abu Hassan is also a very active Al Qaeda operative here. He's particularly active in financing Al Qaeda operations. But they are not, by any means, the only individuals who are active.

But these are guys who would be at the level of a Ramzi bin al-Shibh?

Certainly they're important in the Yemen context. I think it's accurate to characterize them as leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen. On the international level, I would characterize them as key lieutenants in the Al Qaeda network. ...

[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.]

Yemenis seem to come into the news a little more often than anybody else lately. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, others in that Karachi raid, were Yemenis. I think there were seven or so, besides Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Why Yemen?

I think there's a historical reason for this. If you look back at the period of the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a large number of the muhajadeen at that time came from Yemen -- individuals who were unemployed, available, interested. They established associations in Afghanistan. I think those associations carried over after the jihad and into the bin Laden period.

After the 9/11 events, have the number of Al Qaeda in Yemen increased?

That's a very important question. I do not think they have significantly. We expected them to increase as individuals flowed out of Afghanistan and out of Pakistan. But I think a combination of measures by the Yemeni government to tighten entry procedures and to move against Al Qaeda cells in Yemen made Yemen a less hospitable place than the Al Qaeda operatives anticipated.

You say you expected them to come this way, but you think that measures have been put into place to prevent them. How sure are you? Or how comfortable are you when you go to sleep at night that there's not an increase in Al Qaeda here? What kind of assuredness do you have on this?

Well, in my experience working in counterterrorism, there are no guarantees. No one who knows the issue is inclined to complacency, so don't get me wrong. But if you look at the level of activity, if you look at the travel of people that we do know about, there's a lot of evidence that large flows have not occurred.

But small flows have occurred?

Sure. People have moved out of Afghanistan, out of Pakistan, through the Gulf, through Saudi Arabia, into Yemen and out of Yemen. There's no perfect solution here. You don't hermetically seal these borders. But what you try to do is to get a reasonable level of control. You discourage a refuge, a safe haven from being created, which was the big mistake that the international community made in Afghanistan.

Right. And Yemen, in some ways, is a state which doesn't control its territory entirely?

I think Yemen has challenges in that regard. The geography of Yemen is difficult. It's very mountainous. There are remote areas. The social patterns with the tribes, who have historically been very independent of the central government, at least in the northern and northeastern areas -- all of this makes it more difficult to control your territory.

But I think we ought to be a little bit careful in this regard, because what we found is that in other societies -- take Germany, or take the United States -- for other reasons, Al Qaeda has been able to function very well, given the openness of those societies and the ability of these people to blend in.

So different countries, different governments, have different challenges, and it's up to each government to meet the challenges that it's confronting.

[Do you think] Yemen continues to be a place that breeds recruits for Al Qaeda?

I think that is less now than pre-9/11. For one thing, the government moved even before 9/11 to incorporate the religious education system into the national education system. So you don't have madrassa-like establishments here.

And you don't have the Islamists in charge of the Ministry of Education like you did in the past, right?

The government, the central government, is in charge of the Ministry of Education. So you don't have any independent agendas being pursued there. I think that's number one.

Secondly, I think that the Yemeni government moved against a relatively large number of foreign extremists who were in Yemen and very comfortable in Yemen, and basically compelled them to leave. I think that dried up a whole pool of Islamic extremists here.

I was talking with the former Prime Minister Eryani, and he told me about a hadith. He said it was a false hadith, but a hadith that extremists have used that I'd never heard before, which was, "In times of crisis, go to Yemen; run to Yemen." Have you ever heard that before?

That's news to me.

Yes. Interesting, given the fervency, given how religious and serious many of these people are, and that bin Laden himself has said in the past that he dreamed of returning to Yemen, it's an interesting piece of information. I had never heard it either. You know, that blew me away to hear that bit.

I haven't heard it. Yemen, traditionally, hasn't had extremist Islam. It's quite different than the Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, or even the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. You don't have this sectarian violence in Yemen that you have in, say, Pakistan. So perhaps in some perceptions--

He's saying it's been a refuge for dissidents, for Islamic dissidents of one type or another. So if the Muslim Brotherhood is feeling the heat in Egypt, which they have since the 1930s, they come to Yemen.

I think what is true is that, pre-9/11, you had extremists of many different Arab nationalities in Yemen and living relatively comfortably in Yemen, because the Yemeni government did not see them as threats to Yemen and had a laissez-faire attitude. That changed.

After the Cole bombing?

After the Cole bombing, and even more so after 9/11. These North Africans, these Egyptians, these other nationalities were seen as threats to Yemeni stability.

How do you grade the performance of the Yemeni government in the hunt for Al Qaeda, and assisting the U.S. in the hunt for Al Qaeda?

The first thing is more is needed. I think that's a general tenet.

More is needed on their part? They need to do more?

... The way you keep score in this game is very simple: How many Al Qaeda people are off the street, and how many are still out there, active and plotting -- against Yemen, in the first instance, and the United States and the international community in the second instance? The people who are still out there plotting need to be out of the game. ...

But are they under-performing on security? I mean, I'm asking if you have any criticisms of the way in which they're going about it.

I wouldn't put it in terms of criticism. I would put it in terms of taking every opportunity and using every tool in our kit to eradicate Al Qaeda in Yemen and make sure it doesn't come back. In that regard, there is an intelligence component of it: sharing intelligence. There is a security component of it: beefing up security forces and transferring technology. There's a military component of it: increasing the capabilities of the Yemeni special forces. There is a public diplomacy component of it: continuing to explain to the Yemeni people why terrorism is a threat to Yemen.

I also strongly believe there is a developmental component of it. You need to get into these remote areas. You need to strengthen the government presence in these remote areas -- not just by deploying security units, but by also bringing government services to the residents of these areas, so that the tribesmen will cooperate with the government and help the government enhance security in these areas.

In almost all of these areas, you can find room for improvement, ways of enhancing capacity.

It all costs money. Yemen is a poor country. There's this article in the quasi-government newspaper, the Yemen Observer, saying that Sept. 11 cost Yemen $1 billion in paying for the kinds of things you're talking about. How much are we helping them?

I think investment in counterterrorism is one of the best investments you can make. Certainly it's hard to imagine Yemen developing economically, attracting tourists, attracting foreign investment, until the security situation here is more stable.

We are helping in significant ways: with their military both in terms of providing training and in providing equipment with their security services; again, providing technology, helping them manage their borders, who is coming, and whose leaving. Also, in the area of development, helping them provide services in these remote areas that show the people that the government is worthy of their support.

How much are we spending to do these things?

I don't have a precise figure. I would say we're talking up to $100 million across the board.

Let's say it's costing them $500 million, and we're putting in $100 million. Where does Yemen get the $400 million to do this? Are we doing enough? Are we keeping our focus on war on the terrorism sufficiently, in your view, to really push this forward?

Well, first of all, the primary responsibility here rests with each and every individual government. It should have as a high-budget priority spending the resources necessary to effectively combat terrorism. And those are not always dollar costs. I can give you an example. If you look at the security of the American embassy here or other foreign embassies in Yemen, in Sana'a, this is not a high-tech operation. This is a labor-intensive operation. But that's what the Yemenis are good at. They have the security forces, and they can provide security effectively. This does not cost a huge amount of money.

In some areas, the Yemenis don't have a comparative advantage; for example, technology. That's where I think it's appropriate for the United States government and other foreign governments to step in and say, "We will help you get the technology you need, for example, to control your borders, and to know who's coming into Yemen and who's departing Yemen." But the primary responsibility is with the host government. Again, I can't think of a better investment. ...

I'm getting the word from the Yemenis, and they say, "They're not doing enough." And I said, "Well, the ambassador's going to tell me, 'Of course, because who doesn't want more money? And everything costs too much money.'"

... What do we do? You look for your comparative advantage. Where can get reasonable amount of resources on our part, have a measurable impact, OK? Something that I can justify to my father who is a taxpayer in Macomb, Illinois, and wants bang for his buck. And that doesn't mean that you have large-scale budgetary support, that kind of disappears into the cracks and crevices of the Yemeni government. You identify specific needs. ...

There are Americans in Yemen. There's some trainers, some [U.S.] Special Forces trainers. There's some FBI. It's a very sensitive issue. Yet there's a lot of anger throughout the Middle East and in Yemen for U.S. policy right now, for what's happening or not happening in Palestine, Israel and what's perhaps happening in Iraq very soon. How have you been able to walk that line?

I think the first thing you do is you identify common interests. Certainly in the counterterrorism area, we can do that. Yemen has suffered from terrorism. The United States has suffered from terrorism. So having established that common interest, you can build upon that. Basically it's a question of meeting Yemeni needs, legitimate needs.

The Yemenis acknowledge that, for example, in the area of training for their special forces, they can profit from American expertise in the area of investigations. In the aftermath of the explosion that took place in Sana'a on Aug. 9, the Yemenis were very interested in having American investigators working side-by-side with them.

In that case, what you had was, leads developed in Yemen that were followed up outside of Yemen. Then we were able to bring information back from that -- those follow-up interviews, and complete the picture, so that the Yemenis had a better idea of what that cell was trying to do. We had a better idea of what that cell was trying to do. ...

There's a different approach, for instance, in Georgia. American troops are in there training Georgian troops. What I'm getting at is that you have a difficult situation here with American policy in the region being so unpopular with the street and with most of the politicians. It is a different situation.

There are problems that arise from external events. There's no doubt that when Palestine burns, emotions rise here. It becomes more difficult for us to work. That's something that we can't control. Our job is to manage those external factors, move on to accomplish the mission. ...

Do you think that the top level of the administration understands the depth of the anger on the Arab streets?

Yes.

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