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Cash-strapped Yemen finds a reason to join the hunt for al-Qaeda

Abdul Majeed Zandani, a strident Sunni cleric, spoke for many Yemenis when he told his Sanaa congregation that the attempt to blow up an American airliner was part of a dire conspiracy to justify the U.S. occupation of Yemen.

" Lah! Lah! Lah!" (No! No! No!) The worshippers shouted as they rose to their feet in fury at the deviousness of the Americans.

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While fears have been stoked across this impoverished land about the intense and sudden scrutiny of Washington, some see the growing threat of al-Qaeda - and the U.S. response to it - as a golden opportunity for embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"I think he's the big winner," a prominent Yemeni businessman said.

"The country stands to get a big influx of money, and he'll get all the credit."

Already last week, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress for $150-million in military aid to Yemen this year, up from $10-million in 2009.

"And now," a member of the country's Shura Council said, "al-Qaeda is our top priority."

What a turnaround.

Until Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, al-Qaeda was barely a blip on Yemen's radar.

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Sure, the country of 23 million had rallied to the American cause in 2000 when al-Qaeda rammed a suicide boat into the destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. For a few years Sanaa carried out arrests at Washington's behest, and even stayed silent when a U.S. drone took out al-Qaeda's Yemeni leader in 2002.

Recently, however, Yemen has had its hands full with its own problems: an on-again off-again rebellion in the North, an increasingly violent separatist campaign in the South - not to mention a withering economy. As a result, al-Qaeda in Yemen was allowed to grow, much to the consternation of the United States.

All of which leads many people, U.S. and British officials included, to wonder: Can Yemen cope on its own with the growing al-Qaeda menace?

After all, Yemen hasn't done particularly well in dealing with its strictly domestic difficulties.

In the northern province of Saada, a Shia group that once ruled North Yemen has been trying for six years to make a comeback. By some accounts, the Houthis, who are enduring some of the country's worst poverty, feel slighted by the Saleh administration. Others say the group is fighting for its spiritual survival in the face of growing Sunni religiosity in the rest of Yemen.

Either way, the threat to Mr. Saleh's administration was such that neighbouring Saudi Arabia took it upon itself to bomb Houthi villages in support of the Yemeni President.

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Even in the southern province of Abyan, where the separatists are loud and violent though small in number, the government has seemed powerless to end the campaign.

It was because of the chaos that stemmed from these two struggles that al-Qaeda has prospered in Yemen.

"Al-Qaeda took advantage," Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said yesterday. The result, he said, is the presence of "about 200 to 300 al-Qaeda operatives" on Yemeni soil - a very conservative estimate by most accounts.

To this must be added the fact that the government is unable to operate effectively throughout the rest of Yemen. ("Parts of the country are undergoverned," said a U.S. official with an apparent gift for euphemism yesterday.) All of which leads some in Washington to start talking of Yemen as a fragile, if not already failed, state, and of the prospect of al-Qaeda seizing control in Yemen just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, thinks that is unlikely. "The idea that al-Qaeda presents some sort of direct challenge to the Yemeni government to rule the state is incredibly overblown," he said. Just because al-Qaeda is stronger than it has been in the past, he believes, "doesn't mean that it's strong enough to challenge the state."

Yemeni security officials confidently apply the same analysis even to the country's undergoverned areas, where Yemen's deputy interior minister is said to have met in the past few days with the tribal sheiks who rule much of the country beyond Sanaa.

"They don't want al-Qaeda to succeed either," said a member of the advisory Shura Council who is familiar with the situation. "And they'll make sure it doesn't."

While the United States and others in the West fault Yemen's government for failing to apprehend the growing threat of terror in its midst, Yemen says the West didn't pay much attention to its needs either.

"The West sees terrorism as the big issue," a former cabinet minister said. "To us, it's the economy."

Yemen's oil reserves are dwindling, water and electricity are in short supply, about 40 per cent of the work force is unemployed, and the population is growing rapidly.

"If you really want to fight al-Qaeda," the former minister said, "help our workers return to their jobs in the Gulf countries."

Since 1991, when Yemen sided with Saddam Hussein even after he invaded Kuwait, the countries of the Persian Gulf have refused to rehire the two million Yemeni workers they kicked out.

"Get Yemenis two million jobs in the Gulf," the former minister said, "and it will solve our economic problems and cut off al-Qaeda's supply of recruits at the same time."



Civil war and lawlessness have turned Yemen into an alternative base for al-Qaeda, which U.S. officials say has been largely pushed out of Afghanistan and is under military pressure from Pakistan. Between 200 and 300 al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be operating in Yemen, including foreign veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following is a timeline tracing al-Qaeda activity in Yemen since 2000.

Oct. 12, 2000 The bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbour kills 17 sailors and blows a hole in the ship's hull.

Oct. 6, 2002 An explosion damages the French supertanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden in an attack for which five al-Qaeda-linked Yemenis are later convicted.

July 2, 2007 Seven Spanish tourists are killed when a car bomb hits their convoy in the eastern province of Marib.

Jan. 18, 2008 Gunmen fire on a tourist group in Hadramaut, killing two Belgian women and their two Yemeni drivers.

Sept. 17, 2008 Two suicide car bombers attack the heavily fortified U.S. embassy complex in Sanaa, killing 16 people. Washington says the attack bears "all the hallmarks" of al-Qaeda.

January, 2009 Al-Qaeda's Yemeni and Saudi wings announce they have merged into a new group called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula led by Nasser al-Wahayshi, former Yemeni aide to Osama bin Laden.

June, 2009 The bodies of three kidnapped foreign women - two Germans and a South Korean - are found in the northern province of Saada. Six other foreigners remain missing. No group claims responsibility, though AQAP is suspected.

Aug. 27, 2009 Abdullah al-Asiri, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber posing as a repentant militant, is flown from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, where he tries to kill the kingdom's anti-terrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in the first such attack on a Saudi royal.

Nov. 3, 2009 Al-Qaeda claims the killing of seven Yemeni security officials in an ambush near the Saudi border.

Dec. 24, 2009 Yemen says 30 al-Qaeda militants are killed in air strikes in the eastern province of Shabwa. A security official says Mr. Wahayshi, his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehri, and U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki are among the dead. There is no confirmation.

Dec. 28, 2009 AQAP claims responsibility for the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

Jan. 1, 2010 Sheik Mukhtar Robow Abuu Mansuur, a leader of the Somali Islamist militia al-Shabaab, says his group is ready to send reinforcements to AQAP should the United States attack its bases in Yemen.

Jan. 5, 2010 U.S. President Barack Obama suspends the transfer of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to Yemen after revelations that former detainees have joined AQAP. Of the 198 prisoners still held at Guantanamo, about 90 are Yemeni. Among the senior leadership of AQAP are two Saudi militants released from Guantanamo several years ago.

Jan. 27, 2010 An international conference being convened by Britain with the United States and other nations will explore ways of fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen.


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