Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Yemen grapples with Al Qaeda

Yemeni forces have arrested three Al Qaeda militants it claims were behind the threats that closed several foreign embassies. Those arrested include local Al Qaeda leader Mohammed Ahmed al-Hanaq. Al-Hanaq and the others were ambushed on Monday in a security force raid in Arhab, 40 kilometres north of the capital Sanaa. Two of his relatives were killed and three other people wounded in the attack but al-Hanq escaped. However he was captured in a hospital with two others in the town of Reedah, Amran province, north of Sanaa.

The men were arrested in connection with the threats to the US and other embassies in the capital. The attack on Al Qaeda came just days after General David Petraeus, the US regional military commander, travelled to Sanaa for talks with the Yemeni president. The US embassy re-opened yesterday after being closed for two days. They cited a “successful security operation in the north” as the reason for the re-opening. The British and French embassies also resumed operation but were still closed to the public.

Yemen has been in the international spotlight since Yemeni Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day bomb plot in which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam with 278 passengers as it landed in Detroit. The 23-year-old son of a prominent Nigerian banker had hidden a fistful of high explosive in a package sewed into the crotch of his underwear. As the flight prepared to land, Abdulmutallab covered himself with a blanket and injected a chemical to detonate the explosive. He succeeded only in starting a fire which passengers and crew put out as they wrestled him down.

Yemeni Al Qaeda hailed Abdulmutallab as a “brother hero” for evading security screening and intelligence monitoring. It was another boost for the local branch of Al Qaeda whose numbers had been swelled by several veterans of Guantánamo Bay and who are preaching global jihad. The problem for the Obama administration is that 91 of the 198 detainees still at Guantanamo are Yemeni nations. Yesterday, Obama announced he was halting the transfer of prisoners back to their homeland. “There's an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time, along with our Yemeni partner,” he said. “Given the unsettled situation, I've spoken to the Attorney General and we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.” In the same speech Obama also admitted not only the US had intelligence Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen and joined up with extremists there but also Al Qaeda were targetting American interests there and in the US itself.

While Al Qaeda's brother heroes are a threat to Yemen, they are not an existential threat. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has two bigger issues to worry about; a war in the north with Shia rebels and separatist unrest in the south (the two halves of Yemen came together in 1990). Christopher Boucek, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the 7.30 Report says Yemen’s problems are rooted in a failing economy, falling oil reserves, and massive population growth leading to corruption and 35 per cent unemployment. “Basically the Central Government is not in control of all of territory of Yemen, and the Central Government's authority and legitimacy is receding as it deals with all of these problems,” said Boucek. “So it's in those ungoverned places where you see Al Qaeda affiliated and directed organisations seeking refuge.”

Until recently the Government shied away from direct conflict. Al Qaeda had been bolstered by members of the group’s Saudi branch which fled to safety in Yemen and formally accepted Yemeni leadership under a new name "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula". But under US pressure, the government made some headway against Al Qaeda in the week before Christmas. Yemen claims that five air attacks on training camps between 17 and 24 December killed 60 fighters and there are another 29 in custody. But several women and children were also killed in the raids causing anger among a disenfranchised public. The danger for Yemen, as The Economist points out is that “further fighting against Al Qaeda could provoke a wider civil conflict, which in turn could undermine a regime that has rattled many of its own people by throwing in its lot with the West.”

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