- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

The sophisticated attack by heavily armed suicide bombers on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen on Wednesday illustrates the growing danger posed by the al Qaeda network in the ancestral homeland of its leader Osama bin Laden.

But the resurgence of the group in this sprawling, rugged nation on the Arabian Peninsula has divided U.S. analysts.

Some experts say there is little more that the government there can do to dismantle the group’s networks. Its grip over many regions outside the capital San’a is tentative at best, and a tribal-religious insurgency in the north threatens even that.

And some argue that the United States needs to make greater use in the country of so-called soft power aid and democracy-building programs to balance the counterterrorism training and equipment it is supplying.

But others say that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih lacks the political will to tackle the problem of terrorist networks head on, and judge there is more his government could do to catch and jail al Qaeda and other extremists at large in the country.

Steven Heydemann, a Yemen expert and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Wednesday’s attack would likely trigger “another round of an ongoing conversation” that U.S. officials have been having with their counterparts in San’a for many years.

The San’a government “recognizes that there is some popular support [for Islamist extremists], that these groups have influence, that some [members and leaders] have links to important families,” he told United Press International.

He said that the authority of the government was “heavily based on patronage and clientelism,” a delicate network of traditional relationships of tribal and other obligations, which could easily be damaged if the government overreached, especially militarily.

Yemen’s security apparatus was simply “not able to systematically and comprehensively repress these [Islamist extremist] forces … in the way the United States would like.”

A four-year insurgency based in Saada, in the north near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, has displaced more than 100,000 people, Mr. Heydemann said.

Gregory Johnsen, an analyst with the Washington think tank Jamestown Foundation, said the insurgency by Shi’ite fighters under tribal leadership was much higher on Mr. Salih’s list of priorities than the fight against al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda, he said, was seen in San’a as “a security threat, but not as serious as the insurgency … not existential.”

Mr. Johnsen said there is more the Salih government could do, but “there’s a lack of political will.”

In February 2006, more than 20 Yemeni extremists escaped from a high-security jail - a breakout some U.S. officials think San’a allowed to happen in one way or another.

Mr. Heydemann said Wednesday’s attack might “signal to the [Yemeni] government that it is time to reassess the somewhat ambiguous stance they have taken towards” Islamist extremists.

“Even in Yemen there are red lines,” he said, “and blowing yourself up in front of an embassy and shooting at military personnel definitely crosses them.”

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