New Fronts In The War Against Al-Qaida

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the primary fronts in the war against al-Qaida. But there are other hot spots that concern the U.S., including Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Ben Venzke, CEO of IntelCenter, a counterterrorism contractor, about these other regions of concern.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on areas where there's an al-Qaida threat outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I'm joined by Ben Venzke, CEO of IntelCenter. It's a counterterrorism contractor. And we're going to hear about other fronts in the war against al-Qaida and its allies. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BEN VENZKE (CEO, IntelCenter): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Which of the areas outside Afghanistan and Pakistan are you most concerned about?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, there's a number. One of the most obvious ones is Yemen because of its connection to the Delta plot, last year's Christmas attack. But then we're also very concerned about Somalia and the Maghreb or the North Africa area where there are AQ regional arms and affiliates operating.

SIEGEL: Al-Qaida, that is, regional arms and affiliates.

Mr. VENZKE: Exactly.

SIEGEL: And the Maghreb, North Africa we hear about less in this country in terms of plots.

Mr. VENZKE: Right, we don't hear about them as much here because they tend to have a European focus. They trace their roots back to Algeria and fighting against the French, but they've broadened out throughout most of Europe. So they're a very large group. They're a very important group, but not as much on the American radar, if you will.

SIEGEL: In the past, you have correlated al-Qaida attacks with prior public messages from al-Qaida. And you've said, with hindsight, you could see those messages as having called for or threatened or inspired the very attacks that we saw.

Watching them movie forwards right now, if you're looking at all the messages coming out of al-Qaida in these countries, what kinds of attacks would you expect to see them trying to launch?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, one of the clearest is that we've seen from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is the al-Qaida group that's working in Yemen, is attacks against the United States. They said before the Delta attack that they were going to attack airplanes in Western countries, in the United States, and they did exactly that just a few months later.

So we're concerned about further attacks like that. We believe that they're going to continue to try to find creative new ways to strike in the United States.

SIEGEL: Earlier this year, I asked two intelligence veterans - one American, one British, both of them had dealt with al-Qaida - if there were an attack here with a return address in Yemen, let's say, what would Washington's response be over there? What would we do? And they both said we're already doing it. Does that ring true to you?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, I can't comment because of our involvement with the government on exact activities that we're involved in. But suffice it to say that Yemen is an area that we've been paying quite a lot of attention for a number of years now.

SIEGEL: According to one of the biggest disclosures in the WikiLeaks cables, one of the biggest contributions of Yemen's president is not bombing al-Qaida targets, but saying he is and letting the U.S. bomb al-Qaida targets.

Is there a vigorous local counterterrorism effort in Yemen? Or is it more simply permitting the United States to do what it has to do there?

Mr. VENZKE: That's not something that I could comment on.

SIEGEL: Can't comment on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: In Somalia, we've heard a lot about American kids - that is Somali-American kids - suddenly disappearing from the Twin Cities and turning up somewhere in the old country and taking part in violent stuff. A serious threat? How would you quantify it?

Mr. VENZKE: It is. We've seen al-Shabab or the Mujahedeen youth movement, which is the al-Qaida-affiliated group in Somalia, actively recruiting, expending a great amount of energy creating videos speaking directly to the Somali youth in the United States and trying to recruit them and get them to come over.

We think it's one of the most sophisticated recruitment campaigns of all of the jihadi groups operating right now.

SIEGEL: And is there any countervailing authority in Somalia that's doing anything there? Or do they really have a dysfunctional state and have the run of the place?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, that's the problem exactly in Somalia, is that it is an extremely dysfunctional state, and there is no clear government authority that we can work with. So, Shabab actually has free run in much of the country.

SIEGEL: Ben Venzke, thank you very much.

Mr. VENZKE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Ben Venzke who is CEO of the counterintelligence contractor IntelCenter.

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