Publisher: The Times (UK)
Author: Judith Evans in Sanaa
Story date: 10/10/2009
Al-Qaeda militants are establishing a safe haven in Yemen, exploiting the poverty, fighting and corruption that is causing chaos in much of the country.
"The threat level from al-Qaeda is now critical," one diplomat said. Analysts believe that al-Qaeda is recruiting disaffected Yemeni youths and bringing foreign militants to the country to attend its training camps.
For the past two months fighter jets have roared over Sanaa, the capital, to bomb al-Houthi insurgents in the north who are fighting against economic discrimination and want recognition of their status as descendants of the Prophet. Tens of thousands have been been displaced by the conflict.
One diplomat said: "Al-Qaeda has always looked to take over ungoverned spaces and there are a number in Yemen — there is potential for a far wider problem here."
Hundreds of fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan have come from Yemen — the homeland of Osama bin Laden's father. After the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 the country has been an American security concern.
The home of the bin Laden family was Hadhramaut. Here, in the plains and mountains, the al-Qaeda leader is a hero. Militants have bomb-making laboratories and libraries of extremist literature. They have safe houses in Sanaa where messages are spread on CDs and digital memory sticks and jihadi videos are screened in homes, local journalists said.
Terrorists have repeatedly attacked the US Embassy in the capital; al-Qaeda is high on the list of suspects in the kidnapping of nine foreigners in June. Two Germans and a South Korean were found dead and the remaining hostages, including a British man and three children, are still missing. In August a failed assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's anti-terrorism chief, was planned in Yemen by al-Qaeda.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world and has long been a recruiting ground for terrorists. About 100 of the remaining inmates in Guantánamo Bay are Yemeni. The US is reluctant to return them because it is unconvinced that the Government can deal with them.
Two Saudis who were freed from Guantánamo went to Yemen, where they were named as top commanders of the regional al-Qaeda network. Another former detainee, Fahd Saleh Suleiman al Jutayli, was killed by government forces in the north last week. Saudi Arabia has a list of 85 suspected militants; many are thought to be in Yemen.
"It is very possible al-Qaeda are bringing people from outside Yemen and then sending them back to train others," Mohamed Haidar, of the Sheba Institute for Strategic Studies in Sanaa, said. "We have seen this in Somalia, Palestine and Algeria and there is also some co-ordination with Afghanistan. In other countries al-Qaeda is in the decline — here, it is growing."
The longer the Government fights insurgents such as the al-Houthis the more al-Qaeda is likely to thrive. It is thought that there are between 300 and 500 militants in Yemen, where weapons are readily available.
As al-Qaeda suffers setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan many militants are thought to have regrouped in Yemen.
Last week President Saleh said that the conflict with al-Houthi could continue for five or six years. Refugees claim that territory which was held by the Shia insurgents is growing.
This week Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, went to Sanaa to call for the conflict to end. The talks also covered the conflict in the south, where thousands want an independent state.
Charles Schmitz, a director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, said: "The Government likes to create chaos — its strategy is to get lots of rivals fighting each other so that nobody has the ability or the strength to contest them. It worked for a long time but ... now there are serious challenges."
The biggest problem, poverty, has not been addressed. The oil that sustained an economic boom will run out in ten years and the water supply to Sanaa will dry up about the same time.
This year Mr Saleh announced ten areas that needed urgent attention, including security, legal reform, water supply and local government. International terrorism was not mentioned.
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