Raghavan Discusses Al-Awlaki's Death

Melissa Block talks to Sudarsan Raghavan, Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post, about the U.S. assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: As we heard earlier, U.S. officials say the CIA worked closely with Yemen in targeting al-Awlaki. For more on Yemen's role, I'm joined by Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post. He's in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Sudarsan, welcome to the program.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Glad to be here, Melissa.

BLOCK: You interviewed the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, yesterday. He's just back in Yemen after four months of treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds that he suffered during a bomb attack. Did he say anything that gave you an inkling that something like this was in the works?

RAGHAVAN: No, he didn't, actually. He did talk a bit about al-Qaida and Yemen's role in fighting it. You know, he actually mentioned that United States used to be more patient, in a way, with them and not to encourage a speedy transfer of power as it's been doing so for the past few months because he said that if he were to leave power abruptly and there's a leadership vacuum, it could very well strengthen and embolden al-Qaida.

He perceives himself as the one person in Yemen who could actually adequately challenge and tackle the threat of al-Qaida.

BLOCK: Would you presume that President Saleh would have known in advance of this strike?

RAGHAVAN: It's really unknown, unclear. We do know it was an American CIA drone attack, but what we don't know is to what extent the Yemenis were involved in terms of intelligence and so on. They certainly don't have the capabilities of carrying out such a strike on their own, but I do suspect that there's probably some collaboration in terms of intelligence, but once again, things are still quite murky, even at this point.

BLOCK: U.S. officials repeated today that President Saleh must start to transfer power immediately. He told you in the interview, look, if I hand over power, you'd get al-Qaida, pretty much. Does he use this killing, do you think, as leverage? You need me. Does he tell the U.S., basically, you need me if you want to fight al-Qaida?

RAGHAVAN: Yeah. That's certainly the opposition and his opponent's stance. I mean, they have publicly said that they believe that Saleh is using al-Qaida and the threat of al-Qaida to what they call is blackmailing the United States and the international community for more funding and more support. And what they say is that if President Saleh leaves it would actually end the threat of al-Qaida because they wouldn't be under his protection, as they claim.

And they wouldn't be under pressure of the tribes who don't like Saleh, especially in the south. There's huge animosity towards President Saleh and his government in the south and that's really the place where al-Qaida has sort of created a safe haven under the protection of these tribes.

Now, with Saleh gone, his opponents claim that all Yemenis would turn against al-Qaida because they're inherently, as a people, against terrorism.

BLOCK: And where does that leave pro-democracy protesters in Yemen?

RAGHAVAN: You know, I talked to a few of them today and they are concerned that al-Awlaki's death could prompt the United States or certain parts of the Obama administration to give more support to Saleh and they fear that the president will use the killing today as a way to remain in power longer, as a way to convince the United States that they ought to be more patient.

He has indicated that he wants to step down, but under his own terms and sort of preside over this peaceful transition rather than resigning immediately as the protesters on the street want him to. The protesters are a bit concerned. They have long been calling for the United States to take even a much stronger stance against Saleh - like the U.S. has done in Libya and in Syria - to strongly demand the end of his regime much more than what they're doing now.

So the concern now is that the U.S. will be more concerned about looking at it from the lens counterterrorism rather than democracy and that's the protesters, sort of, biggest concern now.

BLOCK: Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post talking with me from the Yemeni capital, Sana. Sudarsan, thank you very much.

RAGHAVAN: My pleasure.

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