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Are U.S. and al-Qaida fighting on the same side in Yemen?

Since 9/11, al-Qaida has morphed into franchises, the deadliest now in Yemen. Now the Associated Press is reporting that U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia is supporting al-Qaida fighters there. Nick Schifrin learns more from special correspondent Jane Ferguson from Beirut, who recently smuggled herself across the dangerous front line.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    The era of terrorism that led to 9/11 began 20 years ago today. Al-Qaida bombs obliterated U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, 250 killed, 5,000 injured.

    Today in Nairobi, the rebuilt U.S. Embassy hosted a candlelight vigil. Since 9/11, al-Qaida has morphed into franchises, and the deadliest is in Yemen.

    The "NewsHour" has reported often from that country, most recently when special correspondent Jane Ferguson crossed the dangerous front line, from land controlled by a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia to an area held by Shia Houthi rebels by smuggling herself in.

    And now there is a new story from the Associated Press about that front line, that Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, is supporting al-Qaida fighters in Yemen.

    Jane joins me now from Beirut.

    Jane Ferguson, thank you very much.

    The U.S., of course, is supporting Saudi, its ally, and supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But Saudi is cutting deals, apparently, with al-Qaida.

    I mean, does this mean, ironically, that the U.S. and al-Qaida are on the same side?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    To a certain extent, Nick, it does, although I'm sure neither side would like to acknowledge that inconvenient fact that they're basically, essentially, fighting on the same side, to some extent.

    Now, there have been reports in the Arab media for some time now about a al-Qaida fighters showing up on the front lines in this war, but this is by far the most comprehensive report.

    And I can say that, when I was on the ground in Yemen and I showed any interest in going to these front lines, like going to the south and spending time trying to film the battles, I was told by Yemeni fixers and journalists there that I would have liked to have teamed up with and go that the main danger, their main concern wasn't just the fighting on the front line, which, of course, can be dangerous, but it was the presence of al-Qaida fighters there, the present of jihadi fighters.

    And, you know, discussions of this had been spreading throughout Yemen, and many Yemenis had been discussing this, that there had been jihadists that had moved into these areas. And this was of note to them because the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, this Yemeni branch of al-Qaida, had not been present in places like Taiz or all up the western coast, where these front lines are.

    So people were really quite alarmed that they were showing up. And they were never sure, if we went there, whether or not there could be a checkpoint all of a sudden that had been set up by al-Qaida itself.

    And, as a result, it makes that kind of reporting very difficult.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It seems to lead to the question about the U.S. strategic aims here.

    The question, I guess, would be, are these deals that Saudi Arabia, again, a U.S. ally, is apparently cutting with al-Qaida, does it mean that al-Qaida is actually continuing or surviving inside of Yemen?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It does.

    It gives them a chance — any time that Al-Qaida fighters are given an opportunity to leave one area safely and live to fight another day, especially if they're allowed to leave with weapons and any kind of money or loot that they have gathered, it helps them thrive.

    If you're looking at strategic interests, it also serves the strategic interests of the Saudis and the UAE who are on the ground there, certainly the Emiratis on the ground there, that they don't have to use their own fighters to fight al-Qaida, and instead they potentially get the recruitment of many battle-hardened and extremely strong fighters from al-Qaida basically joining up with the various militias that they can then fight against the Houthis.

    And for the coalition, the real enemy here are the Houthis, the Iran-backed Shia militias in the north. For the United States, it's difficult to see a strategic benefit here. It's difficult to see why al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula being allowed to survive in those areas — this is the franchise of al-Qaida that is considered by the United States to be the most deadly and the most determined to strike against the United States on its own soil — that they would be allowed to thrive, move around the country.

    So it's difficult to see the U.S. strategic gain there. However, it is also perhaps a reflection of a pivot in U.S. strategy that is very much so focused on fighting Iran. And the United States, this White House, this Trump White House certainly sees the Houthis in the north that are backed by Iran, certainly allied with Iran, they see them very much so as a symbol of Iranian expansion.

    And, therefore, they see it as the United States' strategic interest to go after them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You know better than anyone that the fighting in Yemen continues. Tens of thousands have died. Much of the fighting is focused on Hodeidah. What's the situation in that key port city today?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The situation is that the ground offensive that was launched back in June appears to have stopped, essentially, in terms of the coalition troops trying to enter the city.

    There have been ongoing airstrikes, however, and the aid agencies have continued to call for an end to those and to call for an end to the fighting. Let's not forget that this — the reason that this city is so strategically important is because that is where the vast majority of Yemen's food is coming in to.

    Eight million people in Yemen are on the brink of famine. They are in pre-famine conditions, as the U.N. says. If the fighting does enter that city, and the port stops being able to bring in those food supplies, then Yemen could very easily tip into a massive famine.

    So, it's very important. It's an extremely delicate part of this war right now. The United Nations envoy, the special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, did announce recently that there are planned peace talks for next month in Geneva. But it's not clear yet whether there will be a full-scale cease-fire in order for those peace talks to take place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jane, very quickly in the time we have left, just we have been talking about Saudi Arabia.

    There's a new spat between Saudi Arabia and a surprising, perhaps, other country, Canada. What can you tell us about that?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It certainly is surprising, Nick. And it has surprised a lot of people, because it has exploded so quickly.

    On Friday, the Canadian government tweeted its concerns about the arrest, the recent arrest in Saudi Arabia of civil rights activists and women's rights activists, saying that they were concerned and called them — called for their release.

    The Saudis responded very quickly by expelling the Canadian ambassador. And since then, we have also seen the implication — or basically the sanctions have been put in place against Canada.

    So, this is a huge escalation in just a matter of days between the two countries. It's also a reflection of how sensitive the Saudis are at the moment to international criticism about human rights.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jane Ferguson, joining us from Beirut, thank you very much.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Thank you.

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