- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The arrests in Yemen of six Westerners said to be members of al Qaeda has highlighted concerns that the region remains a “transmission belt” for Islamic converts looking for a way to join jihadi terrorist groups.

But analysts caution that the facts of the case remain murky and warned that Yemenis had many reasons to try to burnish their counterterrorism credentials by exaggerating the importance of the arrests.

Authorities in Yemen told local reporters over at the weekend that they arrested three Australians, a Dane, a German, a Briton and two other foreigners Oct. 16 and charged them with trying to smuggle weapons to Islamic militias in neighboring Somalia.

“Preliminary investigations indicate that they are members of al Qaeda,” an Interior Ministry official said in a statement carried by the state-run news agency, Saba.

A U.S. intelligence official agreed in an interview, saying, “This was a pretty good wrap-up of a group of bad guys.”

U.S. and European counterterrorism officials have long been concerned about the possible terrorist recruitment of people with European or Australian nationality. They can travel much more freely than recruits from Middle Eastern nations.

The concern is accentuated in chaotic, failing states such as Yemen, where intelligence gathering and interdiction are more difficult.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told the Australian Parliament on Monday that two of the men were native-born Australians, while the third was a Polish-born immigrant who had become an Australian citizen in the 1980s.

No information was immediately available about the other suspects, but the Yemen Times, citing unidentified sources, reported that the eight were all students at the Al-Iman religious university in the capital Sana’a, headed by Sheik Abd al-Majid al-Zindani.

Al-Zindani has been named a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the U.S. Treasury Department, which said he had “a long history of working with [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders.”

Karin Von Hippel, a former U.N. official and regional analyst, told UPI that there were well-documented arms transfers to Somalia from Yemen.

“It is very plausible that Islamic extremists in Yemen might be trying to get arms” to the Islamic Courts Union, the umbrella group for Islamic militias that have seized control of most of Somalia.

Bernard Haykel, professor of Islamic law and history at New York University and a Yemen analyst, added that Yemen had in the past served as a “transmission belt country,” for jihadist recruitment of Westerners, but many come to learn Arabic and study the Koran legitimately.

“The [Yemeni] government has a history of trying to prove they are hunting al Qaeda,” he said, however, in reality they have an arrangement with the group. “As long as they don’t stage attacks in Yemen, they are left alone.”

The U.S. intelligence official said the arrests were appropriate. “This was not for show,” the official said.

The Yemeni government was embarrassed in February when 13 al Qaeda militants including the leaders of the attacks on the USS Cole and the French oil tanker Limburg were among 23 inmates who escaped by tunneling out of their prison to a nearby mosque.

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