Ex-Envoy To Yemen: U.S. Could Make Situation Worse

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The man accused of attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound plane last month had backing from the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, putting the country in the spotlight. Barbara Bodine, U.S. ambassador to Yemen at the time of the attack on the USS Cole, says the situation could become worse if the U.S. decides to tackle militants in the country directly or if the Yemeni government seems like a U.S. puppet.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama said today that to defeat al-Qaida, the U.S. will have to evolve and adapt.

President BARACK OBAMA: As these violent extremists pursue new havens, we intend to target al-Qaida wherever they take root, forging new partnerships to deny them sanctuary as we are doing currently with the government in Yemen.

Barbara Bodine was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001. During her posting, the USS Cole was attacked by terrorists at a Yemeni port; 17 sailors were killed.

Ambassador Bodine joins us to talk about Yemen's role in counterterrorism then and now. Ambassador Bodine, welcome to the program.

Ambassador BARBARA BODINE (Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen): Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And take us back, please, to the time right after the Cole bombing in 2000. How cooperative were Yemeni authorities?

Amb. BODINE: Yemen saw the attack on the Cole as an attack on Yemen, as well as an attack on us. And their first response was to pledge full cooperation in a joint investigation.

Now, it, I think as we all know, did not run quite as smoothly as everyone would have hoped. But some of that was a problem of communication and a problem of vastly different capabilities. We came in with a 21st century investigative capability, and we were working in a country that was too poor to have fingerprint powder. Sometimes there will be the political will, but there's not always the capacity.

BLOCK: And at the same time, later, Yemen refused to extradite Cole suspects to the United States. In 2006, there was a notorious prison break of convicted al-Qaida terrorists, including a key player in the Cole bombing. And they were assumed to have had help in their escape from the inside. Both of those seem to point in a very different direction.

Amb. BODINE: It's a very complex situation. Now, on the extradition issue, the Yemeni constitution expressly forbids the extradition of a Yemeni citizen any place. The prison break was quite spectacular. I remember...

BLOCK: In the worst way.

Amb. BODINE: In the worst way of spectacular. But we also do have to understand the context within which they are working. When it has come to going after the bad guys, I think Yemen has stepped up to the plate.

BLOCK: We hear Yemen described as the poorest Arab country. It's also, of course, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden. How much support do you think there is among Yemeni people for al-Qaida?

Amb. BODINE: There is perhaps a broad support for a worldview of an Arab world without a large Western presence. But I think we have to be very careful to make a distinction between kind of a broad philosophic support and support for the tactics that al-Qaida uses. And there is very little support for the tactics.

BLOCK: Ambassador Bodine, help us understand the sort of balancing act that the Yemeni government has to engage in here; on the one hand, cooperating with the U.S. in strikes on terrorists; at the same time trying to maintain the support of tribal leaders and other figures who might be either sympathetic to al-Qaida, or at the very least, resistant to U.S. involvement in their country.

Amb. BODINE: There is a fine line between providing full support to the government efforts and taking it on ourselves. And to the extent that it looks as if we are either doing this directly or that the government is doing it - to use the basic term - as a puppet of ours, we are actually going to be delegitimizing that government rather than supporting it.

And one difference between Yemen and the others who it generally gets lumped in with: Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, this is a sovereign state and it is a legitimate government. How this is done is pretty much up to us. We can either support, or we can actually make the situation worse.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Barbara Bodine, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. She's now diplomat-in-residence at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Ambassador Bodine, thanks very much.

Amb. BODINE: Thank you.

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Can The U.S. Trust Yemen To Fight Al-Qaida?

W: A member of Yemen's anti-terrorist special forces i

A member of Yemen's anti-terrorist special forces takes part in a field training session in August 2009. U.S. officials say Yemen is being used as a base for al-Qaida to launch attacks in the region and beyond. Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
W: A member of Yemen's anti-terrorist special forces

A member of Yemen's anti-terrorist special forces takes part in a field training session in August 2009. U.S. officials say Yemen is being used as a base for al-Qaida to launch attacks in the region and beyond.

Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
Map of Yemen and surrounding countries

As President Obama convenes a meeting Tuesday of his national security staff to discuss the attempt by a terrorist to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, one question will probably loom large: Can America trust Yemen to assist in the fight against al-Qaida?

The Nigerian man accused of attempting to blow up a trans-Atlantic, Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas was allegedly trained by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. The U.S. Army major accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November had e-mail contacts with an Islamist preacher in Yemen before the shootings.

The U.S. has been engaged with Yemen on counterterrorism efforts for more than a decade — beginning even before the attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors — and yet the threat from extremists there appears to keep growing.

An Al-Qaida Base

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday that al-Qaida is using the rugged, poverty-stricken country "as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond the region."

But over the weekend, the head of Yemen's national security agency, Ali Muhammad al-Anisi, said the threat of terrorism in his country was overstated. "Yemen is not a refuge for al-Qaida, as some claim. These are exaggerations," he said.

A Yemeni man passes framed pictures of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh i

A Yemeni man passes framed pictures of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh displayed at a shop in San'a, Yemen, on Monday. Yemeni security forces killed two suspected al-Qaida militants in clashes outside the Yemeni capital on Monday, officials said. Nasser Nasser/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Nasser Nasser/AP
A Yemeni man passes framed pictures of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh

A Yemeni man passes framed pictures of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh displayed at a shop in San'a, Yemen, on Monday. Yemeni security forces killed two suspected al-Qaida militants in clashes outside the Yemeni capital on Monday, officials said.

Nasser Nasser/AP

The story behind al-Qaida's involvement in Yemen is a familiar one. Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula, is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and has strong tribal networks and a weak, corrupt central government — elements that make it a breeding ground of Islamist radicals. The country of 24 million people has large swaths of ungoverned territory and shares a border with Saudi Arabia.

Analysts say that after tolerating al-Qaida's presence for years, Yemen's government finally has to confront a force that has become an increasing threat to its own survival. But, they say, the U.S. must take a light hand in helping out.

Christopher Boucek, who studies Yemen at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says al-Qaida hasn't always been a priority for the Yemeni government in the past, but that the group has now become a direct threat.

"I think they need to be a partner in this," he says. "Al-Qaida has attacked Yemeni officials, Yemeni soldiers and government buildings."

Treading Lightly

But Boucek also says the U.S. shouldn't be perceived to have too much direct involvement in Yemeni affairs. "Direct U.S. military presence there is flat-out a bad idea," he says. "You'll just feed into the grievances that undermine the Yemeni government."

Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that for years Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hesitant to crack down on al-Qaida, because he was beholden to some elements of the group, who helped his forces prevail in a civil war in the south of the country in the 1990s.

"[Al-Qaida] is also very tied to the tribal elements that keep him in power," Zenko says.

Barbara Bodine, who was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, says she thinks the Yemeni government can be a reliable partner in fighting al-Qaida. "They now have the political will to address this," Bodine says, "but they have a real capacity problem."

Poor Country

Yemenis on street i

Young men on the street in San'a, the Yemeni capital, on Monday after the U.S. and other nations closed their embassies because of threats of an attack by al-Qaida. The U.S. reopened its embassy on Tuesday. Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
Yemenis on street

Young men on the street in San'a, the Yemeni capital, on Monday after the U.S. and other nations closed their embassies because of threats of an attack by al-Qaida. The U.S. reopened its embassy on Tuesday.

Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images

"It's very hard for Americans to understand how poor this country is," Bodine says. "There are no resources. This is a country the size of France, and it doesn't have a single river or lake. When they were exporting oil, their exports were roughly the same as Bakersfield, Calif."

Yemen's dwindling output of oil is now selling at vastly lower prices, too, because of the worldwide recession.

Yemen also has security problems that go far beyond the threat of al-Qaida. Boucek points out that the country's army has been strained by fighting with Shiite rebels in the north, and that the government is also trying to stave off a secessionist movement in the south.

Bodine says the United States can help Yemen most by contributing to programs that build the government and the civil service, as well as the military. "Building the civil service is not very sexy," she says, "But a state needs a strong civil service. Yemen may never be a prosperous state, but it can be a functional one."

U.S. Aid

The Obama administration is seeking a 56 percent increase in development and security aid to Yemen this year, boasting the amount to more than $52 million. That does not include counterterrorism funding of about $63 million this year.

Boucek says the U.S. also should focus on issues like improving Yemen's judicial system. Yemeni nationals can't be extradited under the country's Constitution, Boucek says, so it should be a long-term goal to train Yemeni prosecutors and judges.

"If it's not doable to extradite Yemeni nationals who are wanted in the U.S.; you need to help the Yemenis prosecute them," Boucek says.

Boucek points out that many other nations can help with civil capacity building in Yemen, thereby avoiding a large American footprint in the country.

Al-Qaida Weaknesses

While al-Qaida is a growing problem, Bodine says it has built-in weaknesses that Yemen and the U.S. should exploit. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is a divided organization, she says, comprising elements from Saudi Arabia and Yemen that have very different goals.

"The leadership is essentially Saudi," Bodine says, "which makes it politically easier for the Yemeni government to go after them." She says Yemeni members of the organization are more likely to have domestic concerns, while the Saudi leadership is focused on much broader operations, such as the attempted bombing of the U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

"Let's make it clear that this is a Saudi organization using Yemeni soil to further its own agenda, because that will isolate them from the Yemenis," Bodine says.

Bodine, who now teaches at Princeton, says despite all the problems, Yemen has some advantages.

"They don't have the sectarian divisions that Iraq has," she says. "They don't have warlords like Afghanistan, and they don't have the clan violence of Somalia. Yemen doesn't have to be a failed state."

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