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Yemen emerges as a new base for al-Qaida

This week, Need to Know examines three words you may not have heard — at all — during the long months of the midterm campaign season: “War on terror.”

For the first time since the 2002 elections, the question “Who would be the better steward of national security?” wasn’t a political issue. Among the media chattering classes, there was more discussion about witches than about al-Qaida. What that says about the national mood is debatable: Was it simply that the economic issues that face us are so all consuming they pushed out other policy questions? Or is it a matter of believing that those charged with keeping us safe are doing all they can?

One thing is certain: We may have pushed the matter of terrorism to the back burner, but those who mean us harm have not let up. And while we may be distracted in coming weeks with battles over taxes and deficits and healthcare, al-Qaida won’t be distracted. That was all too clear last week when intelligence officers in the U.S. and Britain were tipped off to a potentially catastrophic attack involving explosives on two planes bound for the United States.

Now this plot, like so many others over the past year, was believed to be hatched in Yemen, a country we need to know more about. Al-Qaida in Yemen is the focus of our regular investigative segment, The Watch List. Need to Know talks with Christopher Boucek, co-editor of the book “Yemen on the Brink” and an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

First, some background.

Yemen, located on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula just south of Saudi Arabia, is the poorest country in the Arab world and in danger of becoming a failed state. Ten years after al-Qaida terrorists bombed the USS Cole in Yemen’s Aden harbor, killing 17 American sailors, the country has once again emerged as a major source of terrorist activity. It is believed to be the home of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical, American-born Muslim cleric. He is a key leader for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, and is the only know American on the government’s list of targets for assassination.

Al-Aulaqi has called for deadly attacks on Americans and acted as a spiritual mentor to Major Nadal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter who killed 13 people last November. U.S. officials also believe al-Aulaqi prepared the so-called “underwear bomber” last Christmas.

Last week, after the discovery of explosives on those cargo planes, Yemen put al-Aulaqi on trial in absentia for plotting to kill foreigners. The bombs were hidden inside computer ink cartridges and contained the explosive material PETN, which experts consider a hallmark of al-Qaida’s work. To understand how Yemen became home to al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula, we explore what’s happening on the ground there. We begin just outside Sana’a, the capital.