Security Heightened In Yemeni Capital Sanaa

Tanks and troops are in the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, as reports of possible terrorist strikes closed the U.S. and British embassies there. On Tuesday, the U.S. government advised American citizens in Yemen to leave immediately. For a view inside the capital, Renee Montagne talks to Iona Craig, a correspondent for The Times of London and one of the few remaining western journalists still there.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We've been following, these past days, the closing of American, British and other Western embassies around the Middle East and Africa, amid the threat of a terrorist attack.That threat seems to be originating in one country, Yemen; and it centers on communications between two of the world's top al-Qaida figures. That would be the man who replaced Osama bin Laden, and the leader of al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, a faction bent on attacking Western targets.

Yemen, with its vast deserts and weak central government, has attracted top militant operatives from neighboring Saudi Arabia. Iona Craig is one of the few Western journalists there. She's a correspondent for The Times of London, and joined us from the capital, Sanaa.

Good morning.

IONA CRAIG: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, what does the security situation look like, there in Sanaa?

CRAIG: The security situation here is - actually, appears relatively normal, which means you've got checkpoints dotted across the city. You've got soldiers outside of embassies. The military presence here is always relatively high. I mean, the most notable differences - you probably can't quite hear it, but there's a surveillance airplane buzzing around that's been going for about an hour. And we had the same thing yesterday - which everybody assumed were drones because they sound very similar. A lot of people's assumption was that the next thing they'd be doing is firing missiles down on Sanaa.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me ask you about a couple of reports - both from the BBC, actually. The BBC is reporting that al-Qaida operatives have been arriving in Yemen's capital over the last few days. Is there any evidence of that?

CRAIG: No. I mean, the intelligence sources that I've spoken to were well aware of at least five al-Qaida sleeper cells inside Sanaa. What people have said, in the last few days, is there is a possibility that they have become active, or will become active, and that their numbers may have increased.

MONTAGNE: The BBC is also reporting that there's a U.S. Special Forces operation in the works. Should that happen, how would people there react?

CRAIG: I think there would be a very bad reaction to that. There's already anti-American sentiment because of the issue with drones here. To be then adding to that by having, you know, JSOC troops doing night raids - or whatever it is they may be planning - I think that would go down very badly amongst the Yemenis.

The feeling I've always heard from the Americans here is that they would never want to put those kinds of boots on the ground. They have been involved in training troops here, but actually putting them out kind of in the field is something that they've refrained from doing, so far. Perhaps that may change. We're seeing unprecedented moves here with the U.S. leaving Sanaa, with the British leaving. This hasn't happened before. So maybe that does open the door for these kinds of operations to happen.

MONTAGNE: Well, stepping back for a moment to look at the bigger picture, how does Yemen figure into the overall activity of al-Qaida? There's this al-Qaida branch there - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - that is considered to be not just the most active; the most dangerous.

CRAIG: Yes. There's a very good reason for that. AQAP has been notorious, really. I mean, they have come closest to carrying out successful attacks against the West, more so than in any other al-Qaida offshoot since 9/11. This is, you know, another indication of, perhaps, their capabilities; in the sense that this fight against AQAP here has been going on for a long time. We've seen a huge increase in drone strikes, particularly last year, and yet seemingly, they are still able to certainly threaten the West in a substantial manner, even if they haven't been able to so far carry out successful attacks.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

CRAIG: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Iona Craig, speaking to us from Yemen's capital, Sanaa. She's a correspondent for the Times of London; one of the few Western journalists in Yemen.

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