- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2010

SAN’A, Yemen | Not much has changed in the ancient markets of Yemen’s capital since al Qaeda made the country famous.

Men still spend their afternoons lounging outside their shops with tennis-ball-size wads of qat, a leaf chewed for its narcotic effects, bulging out of their cheeks. Women in black veils still bustle through the cobblestone alleys filled with barrels of dates, almonds and frankincense, before disappearing behind heavy wooden doors.

In a crowded, dusty alley that serves as a chicken market, 20-year-old Yuosef Nasser said he slaughters as many as 1,000 chickens a day. Wearing a baseball hat and a sweatshirt coated in dried blood and speckled with feathers, Mr. Nasser said he’s not worried about terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda is a media-made monster, he said, with little power or presence in Yemen. “Their extremist views are bad for the country,” said Mr. Nasser. “But they are smaller than the news says. They are small.”

Many Yemenis, including Mr. Nasser, think Yemen’s recent fame for becoming the stronghold of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is ill deserved. The most well-known of its members passing through Yemen are foreigners, and the strength of the clandestine organization is hotly debated. Even officials, who are quick to tell Western reporters that their first security priority is eliminating terrorists, say al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s biggest local threat is to Yemen’s economy.

Before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed in his attempt to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, the Yemeni government was regularly criticized by American officials for its perceived lassitude in fighting al Qaeda. Western analysts warned that Yemen’s internal security crises - a rebellion in the north and a separatist movement in the south - were creating a chaotic atmosphere where the terrorist organization could thrive.

In early January, when Yemeni officials told an army of international reporters that fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was their top priority, some Western analysts said the announcement appeared to be a ploy to use the attention to secure more international aid.

“[The Yemeni government] does not view al Qaeda as its most important security challenge,” Steven Heydemann, a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a specialist in Arab politics, said shortly after the announcement. “This is going to be a relationship that will include its fair share of tension.”

Yemen often has been accused of using international donations meant to fight al Qaeda for its local battles. Mr. Heydemann said it was reasonable to assume that Yemen’s leadership would “exploit shared concerns to improve the flow of resources from Washington to San’a.”

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official disagrees. “Al Qaeda in Yemen remains focused on plotting attacks not only in that country, but also against Western targets in the region and beyond,” the official told The Washington Times. “We view them as a serious threat, and the Yemenis do, too. … Since we face a common enemy, lending our assistance isn’t a close call.”

Now, almost three months later, Yemeni officials claim that government efforts to crush al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been largely successful. Operatives are scattered and their camps are destroyed, said Abdul Karim al-Iryani, a former prime minister of Yemen. But, he said, al Qaeda remains Yemen’s greatest security threat, with about 300 to 500 operatives in the country. The organization will not stop attempting attacks on Yemeni and Western interests unless they are “eliminated,” he said.

“[Al Qaeda] will not cease trying,” Mr. al-Iryani said in his posh San’a home on Tuesday. “However, I believe that the pressure they are facing today does not make it easy for them to plan and attack.” Government news estimates that more than 30 active militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been killed in air strikes since January, but many of those deaths have not been independently verified.

Dead or alive?

In the past, Yemen has reported the deaths of al Qaeda militants, who later reappear on the Internet claiming they weren’t even in the area of the bombings. In December, state-run news agencies reported that Nasser al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehri, were killed in air strikes on Dec. 24. Less than two weeks later, reports stated that a different round of air strikes almost hit the leader.

Al-Shehri - apparently also not dead - reportedly was arrested in mid-January. But on Feb. 11, the Yemeni government announced that al-Shehri was the new leader of the al Qaeda branch because of the death of al-Wahayshi.

In a dank police station in the capital last weekend, officers proudly flipped through their computer database of suspected al Qaeda members, pointing out who had been killed, injured or arrested. They said al-Wahayshi had been killed in March, and this time for good. “He was killed with 90 percent certainty,” one officer said with a picture of Yemen’s president on his pistol. “Or at least seriously injured.”

Police said hundreds of vehicles now sweep the country in shifts, checking the identification of every hotel and hospital guest in the country, every night. Individual members of the terrorist organization may be protected by the tribes that rule most of the Yemeni countryside, they said, but they are now rendered impotent by government security forces.

Other government officials say the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is far from over. Nasr Taha Mustafa, the chairman of the Yemen News Agency, said Yemen can’t destroy the terrorist group without more help from the West. He agrees with public opinion, which is virtually united against the idea of foreign armies in Yemen. But, he added, the West does not donate nearly enough money, equipment or training for Yemen to crush the al Qaeda group.

“If there were enough Yemeni security forces in the regions where al Qaeda establishes camps and operates, Yemeni authorities could contain and overcome al Qaeda,” he said. “But Yemen has limited resources.”

Poverty’s byproduct

On the streets outside of Bab al Yemen, the stone archway entrance to San’a’s medieval Old City, locals say they have bigger problems than the mysterious al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Ex-soldiers from the former South Yemen that gather in the area daily complain that most of their ranks have been unemployed since the 1994 civil war.

Ali Saleh, a man with few teeth, cracked brown hands and a clean, beige uniform, said he doesn’t think al Qaeda is a threat to Yemeni security. But if it is a threat, he said, the organization grew out of the same government oppression that inspired the Southern Movement, which is once again demanding secession. “The government created these problems,” said Mr. Saleh.

Methaq al-Saeed, a civil servant, who walks about two miles to his office because he cannot afford the 10-cent bus fare, said there might be people who call themselves al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but the security crisis is pure fiction. “Fabricated security challenges are just to distract the nation from the real problems,” he said.

Poverty, not terrorism, is the biggest threat to Yemen’s stability, Mr. al-Saeed said. The World Bank has reported that almost half of Yemenis live off less than $2 a day.

“Al Qaeda is not the main threat that Yemeni people and Yemen face,” said Mr. Mustafa, the Yemen News Agency director. “It is a byproduct of other problems in the country. The foremost of which is poverty, which creates an environment in which al Qaeda can operate.”

A new generation

In Yemen, it is also difficult to know where Islamic fundamentalism ends and support for al Qaeda begins, said Yemeni political analyst Ali Saif Hassan. Yemen’s conservative Salafi branch of Sunni Islam is growing rapidly, he said. But he noted that just because Salafis share ideological roots with Osama bin Laden, it does not mean they support al Qaeda. Salafi religious zeal has made it easy to recruit believers who have nothing to do with al Qaeda to fight socialists in the south, and northern Shi’ite rebels.

“They support the government and have free reign to operate,” Mr. Hassan said.

The expansion of al Qaeda in Yemen over the past few years, he added, was originally a result of the combination of abject poverty and a heavily armed population. Yemen has an estimated 60 million firearms and about 23 million people.

But, he said, the organization has morphed and now is also a product of foreign forces taking advantage of Yemen’s largely ungoverned countryside. Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric who preaches violent uprising against the West and supported the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, is an example of this next generation of al Qaeda.

“He’s well educated, has money and is connected,” Mr. Hassan said. Educated in the U.S., Mr. al-Awlaki is the son Nasir al-Awlaki, a wealthy businessman, prominent scholar and former minister of agriculture. Anwar al-Awlaki is also related to the current prime minister.

Mr. Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bombing suspect, is the son of a wealthy banker and attended one of England’s top universities. Like John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” and Sharif Mobley, the New Jersey al Qaeda suspect who recently tried to escape by shooting up a Yemeni hospital, Mr. Abdulmutallab lived in Yemen under the pretense of studying the Arabic language.

Yemeni officials regularly call for increased international cooperation, like sharing intelligence and resources to root out foreign operatives planning attacks in Yemen’s countryside. They also waste no opportunity to tell tourists and investors that most of Yemen is safe and the major cities are open for business. Mr. al-Iryani, the former prime minister, said he wished Western governments would stop warning their citizens not to come to Yemen for vacation.

“This is very unfair,” he said. “That creates a very distorted image in the public mind in the United States - to the extent that they think Yemen is al Qaeda and al Qaeda is Yemen.”

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