Conditions In Yemen Ripe For Terrorist Groups

The suspect taken into custody for detonating explosives on an airliner near Detroit apparently told authorities he had gotten the explosive material from a bomb expert in Yemen. Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security talks to Linda Wertheimer about deteriorating security in Yemen, and U.S. efforts to fight terrorism there. The center develops national security and defense policies that protect U.S. interests.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

To get a better sense of the status of the terrorist threat from Yemen, and U.S. efforts to address it, we turn now to Richard Fontaine. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Good morning.

Mr. RICHARD FONTAINE (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Let's begin with a little background on conditions in Yemen. This is a country of 22 million people, more than a third of them are unemployed. We've reported on water shortages there, oil revenues are down - what does this mean for Yemen?

Mr. FONTAINE: It means that the country is spiraling toward potential catastrophe. Population will probably double in the next decade or two, and it's already the Arab world's poorest country and it's about to run out of oil in the next few years. And currently, 85 percent of the government's revenue comes from oil taxes and there's no plan for what to do after the oil does run out.

WERTHEIMER: Part of the U.S. response to concerns about what might happen there is to provide some military aid. What is the United States trying to do?

Mr. FONTAINE: Well, all of a sudden it's become clear to a lot of policymakers in Washington that the situation in Yemen poses a threat to U.S. national security interests, both in the region and potentially globally as well. Back in 2003 and in 2004, there was a sense that al-Qaida in Yemen had been defeated by the Yemeni government, along with U.S. government support, and resources were shifted to other parts of the world. Now, given the uptick in attacks in Yemen, the strength in rhetoric and seeming force of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, now Washington wants to get back into the game of trying to prevent al-Qaida from getting a bigger foothold in Yemen.

WERTHEIMER: The United States government has cooperated in air strikes against al-Qaida. What is this about? Is the U.S. trying to be a partner with the Yemenis in fighting terrorism? Would they be a partner we could trust?

Mr. FONTAINE: There are certainly elements in the Yemeni government that we can work with. In 2002, the United States launched a drone strike in Yemen which took out some al-Qaida operatives. That was reportedly in cooperation with the government of Yemen. So, this is not an entirely new phenomenon.

But obviously in the last few weeks this has really stepped up with two major airstrikes that have been launched - one on December 17th and a second one on Christmas Eve, just a day before the attempted bombing of the U.S. airliner.

WERTHEIMER: What about the possibility that al-Qaida wants to retaliate?

Mr. FONTAINE: Well, they've said as much. They said that they want to retaliate for these airstrikes and I think that we should very much expect al-Qaida to try to launch some sort of visible reaction to the attacks on their sites. Now, whether that's in Yemen or somewhere else, we just can't say.

WERTHEIMER: What exactly does al-Qaida have in Yemen? I mean, what do we know about al-Qaida cells, al-Qaida activities?

Mr. FONTAINE: Part of this is unknown, but the estimates of the number of al-Qaida fighters present in Yemen range from, on the low end, 100, to, Yemeni officials have suggested, maybe a thousand, with many more sympathizers around Yemen that would give them safe haven.

So, the U.S. interest is obviously preventing an attack on the United States, but also on its interests in Yemen. And to the extent that al-Qaida begins to take on the government of Yemen directly, then that could foment instability in Yemen that could radiate throughout the region. And so we have an interest in preventing yet another failed state in that part of the world.

WERTHEIMER: Richard Fontaine, thanks very much.

Mr. FONTAINE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Richard Fontaine is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security here in Washington.

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