Behind Yemen's Strike Against Al-Qaida

National security officials in Washington, D.C., are concerned about the growing influence of al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula. On Thursday, Yemen launched an airstrike against al-Qaida targets in the southeastern part of the country. Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University gives some background on al-Qaida's operations in Yemen to NPR's Guy Raz.

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GUY RAZ, host:

The man who allegedly tried to bring down that passenger jet on Christmas told officials he has connections to al-Qaida in Yemen. Now, it's not clear whether or not it's true, but national security officials here in Washington are nonetheless concerned about the growing influence of al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula.

On Thursday, Yemen launched an airstrike against suspected al-Qaida targets in the southeastern part of the country. There is still no word on exactly who was killed in the attack.

Gregory Johnsen is a Yemen scholar at Princeton University, and he joins me on the line.

Hello, Mr. Johnsen.

Mr. GREGORY JOHNSEN (Yemen Scholar, Princeton University): Hello.

RAZ: How serious of a problem is al-Qaida in Yemen right now?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, I think there's two ways to get out this: how serious al-Qaida is for the Yemeni government, and how serious it is for the U.S. government. The Yemeni government right now is sort of overburdened by a number of different security challenges. There's a separate civil war in the north of the country; there's growing and increasingly violent calls for secession from the south of the country, as well as al-Qaida.

So, in the Yemeni government's calculus, al-Qaida is not - sort of the same level of an existential threat as these other two crises. But for the U.S. government, al-Qaida and the potential for al-Qaida to develop a safe haven or a refuge within Yemen is a very serious threat, and something that they've increasingly grown very concerned about over the past year or so.

RAZ: And the U.S. government has sent about $70 million in military aid to Yemen just this year, which is an enormous increase in military aid to Yemen. Is the U.S. government putting pressure on the Yemeni government to focus less on the secession movements and the rebellions that they're grappling with, and to focus more on al-Qaida?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, what the U.S. government would like to see is that the Yemeni government carry out a more sustained campaign against al-Qaida. So, you saw General Petraeus pay a visit to the country in July of this year. There have been other military leaders from joint special operations, and other divisions within the U.S. military, who went to Saleh all carrying the same message. And that is that the Yemeni government really needs to take the fight to al-Qaida and not be so reactive but rather, be proactive in fighting al-Qaida in the country.

RAZ: Gregory Johnsen, it seemed as if the United States, working presumably with the Yemeni government, managed to almost destroy al-Qaida's presence in Yemen after September 11, 2001. But there is a resurgence now. What happened?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, essentially, what happened is the U.S. and Yemeni governments both sort of shifted their attention to other security threats and other challenges. And then when a number of prisoners broke out of a security prison in February of 2006, there was a great deal of space in which they could operate. And so, they were essentially able to rebuild, reorganize and resurrect al-Qaida up from the ashes. So, what we're seeing now is really, the second version of al-Qaida in Yemen.

RAZ: And so among those prisoners who escaped are, today, the leaders of al-Qaida in Yemen.

Mr. JOHNSEN: That's right. The amir of al-Qaida in Yemen, Nasir al-Wahishi, was among the escapees. He'd been a personal assistant to bin Laden, fought with bin Laden at Tora Bora. Another individual, Kassim al-Reami, who's probably the most dangerous military commander in the organization, was also among the escapees.

RAZ: How worried, in your view, are U.S. officials that Yemen is right now on the verge of becoming the next Afghanistan before 9/11, 2001, that Yemen may become the next place where al-Qaida could really establish a base of operations?

Mr. JOHNSEN: I think U.S. officials are very concerned, and rightly so. Yemen is running out of oil, running out of water; it's crippled by poverty, unemployment, illiteracy. There are just so many challenges that Yemen faces and is going to face over the next several years - that the U.S. government is really concerned that as government power sort of recedes back into urban areas, this will open up more and more space for groups like al-Qaida to operate.

RAZ: That's Gregory Johnsen. He was a Fulbright scholar in Yemen, and he's now completing his Ph.D. at Princeton University. He spoke with us today from upstate New York.

Gregory Johnsen, thanks so much.

Mr. JOHNSEN: Thank you.

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