Yemen An Ideal Training Ground For Al-Qaeda

The Middle Eastern nation of Yemen has been the focus of an ongoing security threat in recent weeks. It's the place where an alleged terrorist from Nigeria received training and attempted to detonate explosives aboard a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day. Host Michel Martin talks with Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan for an update on US-Yemen relations and a general explainer of the country's location, its citizens and why al-Qaeda has found the area to be an ideal training ground.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

But why is Yemen the focus of such concern on the part of U.S. intelligence and political officials? For more on that part of the story we go to Washington Post Middle East correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan. He's on the ground in the capital city of Sana. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN (Middle East Correspondent, The Washington Post): Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: In a piece published earlier this week, you wrote, Yemen's fragile government is in a delicate balancing act between its allegiance to the United States and tribal, political, and religious forces that resent U.S. interference in Yemen and sympathize with al-Qaida's ideology. Could you just unpack that a little bit for us?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Sure. The Yemeni government is extremely weak. It's unable to control basically areas outside of the major cities, and they rely heavily on tribal connections, tribal loyalties to have some sort of control over the rest of the country. But what's essentially happening, though, it's the tribes who are now in control and the government depends on them to stay in power.

MARTIN: I think that the question that a lot of Americans have is why is Yemen all of a sudden the subject of our attention? Has Yemen suddenly become a less stable environment and therefore more attractive to al-Qaida? Has something happened recently, or is it, this just - situation just only come to our attention in part because of recent events?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Yemen has actually been a place where there has been extreme violence and terrorist acts for years. The 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, and since then you've seen numerous attacks on American missionaries, Western tourists. So this has been going on for a long time. I think what's different now is that you're seeing the al-Qaida branch here, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, really trying to exert itself. It's trying to carve out a leadership role in the world of global jihadism. And so, they're taking a lot of risks now, and that's why you're seeing Yemen suddenly rise to the top of the agenda of the United States.

MARTIN: But is it that Yemeni men, citizens of Yemen, per se, are considered to be a recruiting target for al-Qaida and terrorist organizations, or is it that the country itself is, for whatever reason, a hospitable environment for outsiders to come in and essentially, kind of, use it as a host if you will?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Yeah, it's a bit of both. Yemen geographically is very hospitable to al-Qaida militants. It's mountainous, there's a lot of remote areas. In that sense it really resembles, sort of, Afghanistan and some of the Pakistani tribal areas. The second point is that, you know, you've got a very loose tribal structure and codes of honor here that allow al-Qaida militants to basically be protected by the tribes, live amongst the tribes. And that allows them great mobility. At the same time, you know, with the young men you're seeing several reasons why they're attracted to militancy. Probably the most important factor is Yemen is an extremely poor country. It's the Middle East's poorest nation.

You've got high unemployment, you've got high illiteracy. This does not bring a lot of opportunity. So then that drives some young men to militancy. You also see a lot of anti-American sentiments here. And thirdly, you know, you also -there's also a whole history of jihadism in Yemen. Since the 1980s, Yemen has sent thousands of fighters to Afghanistan and Iraq to really fight for Muslims against non-Muslim invaders. So these are some of the factors that are really, you know, driving the ability of al-Qaida to really make a sort of safe haven, you may say, in Yemen.

MARTIN: And I just want to play a short clip from yesterday's briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. He is talking about efforts by the Yemeni government - here it is.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): We're strongly supportive of the efforts by the Yemeni government to take strong action and root out terrorists that are members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. We'll continue to do so and continue to be supportive of those efforts.

MARTIN: A couple of questions about that. First of all, is that true, is the Yemeni government taking strong action to root out terrorists who are members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula? And what is the U.S. government doing to support those efforts?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Well, certainly in the past two and a half weeks, you've seen the Yemeni government escalate its efforts to tackle al-Qaida militants. I mean, you've seen two major air strikes, which were backed by the United States, in which 60 suspected al-Qaida militants were killed, according to the government. You're also seeing, just in the past recent days, you know, raids going on in the capital, as well as north of the capital, to hunt down al-Qaida militants. What we're seeing here is the government trying to assert itself, take control, really show the world that they can handle al-Qaida on their own.

The recent embassy closings - the recent closing of the U.S. embassy and the British embassy - really was an embarrassment to the government. Now with all this happening, the U.S. is also ratcheting up its own engagement in Yemen. And no one here believes that the Yemeni government can do it on its own. But, you know, with U.S. support, it's, you know, many people here is needed, but that too, is a little bit - it's a little bit murky, what exactly the U.S. support has been. But what is increasingly clear is that the Americans are ramping up their engagement here.

We heard in the past couple of days how General David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. central command, he announced that the U.S. is going to be doubling its counterterrorism funding to Yemen this year. So, there is a growing support, a growing relationship between Yemen and the United States. But what remains to be seen is how - if Yemen is committed, in the long term, to tackling al-Qaida. This alliance - this growing alliance with the United States is creating a lot of domestic political backlash.

There are plenty of people who are accusing the government of being a puppet of the United States. And so that's raising alarm bells inside the halls of power here.

MARTIN: Sudarsan Raghavan is a Middle East correspondent with The Washington Post. He joined us from the Yemeni capital of Sana. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: My pleasure.

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