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Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed credit for the cargo plane bomb plots, making the Yemeni government’s fight against the terrorist group a central front. Unfortunately, the government is weak and corrupt and has its hands full with two other conflicts. The battle ahead with Al-Qaeda in Yemen will not be easy and may require direct U.S. intervention.
The Yemeni government is battling a secessionist movement in the south and has a shaky truce with the radical Shiite Houthi rebels in the north that could break at any moment. Last year, Iran waged a major proxy war against the Yemenis and Saudis using the Houthis. The government’s resources are overextended and like in Pakistan, the government lacks effective control over large swaths of territory. As one senior diplomat explained, “the government is practically caged in the capital” of Sana’a.
Already, the fight has been costly as at least 70 police officers and soldiers have been killed by Al-Qaeda in the past month.The Yemeni government has sent an additional 3,000 soldiers to participate in its offensive in Abyan, Shabwan and Marib Provinces where 300 to 500 Al-Qaeda members have found refuge. The high number of Yemenis in the terrorist group indicates they have a significant pool of support beyond their actual membership.
Bin Laden’s following in Yemen is so strong that the editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdul Bari Atwan, says it is possible that the terrorist mastermind is actually hiding there. Atwan says that when he met Bin Laden in November 1996, Bin Laden said that he’d go to Yemen if he was kicked out of Afghanistan because “its mountains are like Tora Bora’s and the country will embrace me and be warm towards me.” Atwan adds that a Yemeni tribal leader told him that he was contacted by Bin Laden before 9/11 to discuss a possible safe haven.
The population’s distrust of the government further complicates any offensive against Al-Qaeda, as many Yemenis believe the government is exaggerating the threat from Al-Qaeda or altogether making it up as a way of getting Western aid and clamping down on opposition. President Saleh’s insecurity has led him to install family members as the heads of his national security apparatus, a move designed to stabilize his rule but that creates further distance from the population.
The Yemeni government’s past willingness to coddle Al-Qaeda has allowed the terrorist group to establish a base which now must be removed. The government has openly negotiated with radical Islamic militants since 2005, a process that meetings with a former Al-Qaeda official once seen next to Osama Bin Laden. In January 2008, a member of Al-Qaeda in Yemen confirmed the deal-making, saying some of them had been recruited to fight the Shiite Houthis. These dealings apparently included the release of imprisoned detainees, such as when 170 suspected members of Al-Qaeda were freed in February 2009 after they pledged to change their ways.
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