Reflections After Reporting In Yemen

There is growing concern over al-Qaeda's ability to operate in Yemen. Sudarsan Raghavan, Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, discusses his impressions of the situation in the country following a recent two-month reporting trip there.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Over the past few months, weve heard more and more about the Republic of Yemen, which lies on the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula with Saudi Arabia to the north, Oman to the east, and across the Gulf of Aden, Somalia to the west. The Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a transatlantic airliner on Christmas day said he was trained for that by al-Qaida in Yemen. In response to security concerns, the United States and the United Kingdom decided to close their embassies in Yemens capital, Sanaa.

Sudarsan Raghavan, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, moved to Yemen on assignment a couple of months ago. Hes back in the States for a week and joins us now from a studio at the Washington Post headquarters. Nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN (Washington Post): Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what is going on with the cooperation with the Yemeni government? They have in the past been involved with Islamic extremists in one way or another. Theres even suggestions that theyre using Islamic extremists right now to try to put down a civil war in the northern part of the country.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Exactly. Its theres been a quite a bit of tainted loyalties, you might say, tangled loyalties, within - inside the Yemeni government. On one hand, theyve theyre fighting a war against al-Qaida. On the other hand, they are using, you know, Sunni extremists in another war in the north. And its something that has happened before. Theyve also used Sunni extremists in to fight a civil war in 1994 with the south.

So there really is, you know, to many people (unintelligible) it does raise questions about Yemens long-term commitment to fighting - to U.S. counterterrorism goals in the Arabian Peninsula.

CONAN: Theres that civil war in the north, this is Shias, and again, Sunni majority there. Of course, theres a Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia, which is involved in that conflict in the north. At the same time, you mentioned at one point there was North Yemen and South Yemen, and now there is a secessionist movement in the south yet again.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Yes. You know, this is just, you know, these are two major emergencies that the Yemeni government is basically faced with. In addition to this, they're also facing high employment(ph) rates, immense poverty, high illiteracy, so there's a lot of challenges. And this is this raises concerns certainly among U.S. officials and the West essentially, that the that whether, you know, whether Yemen is focused enough on targeting al-Qaida militants, which, you know, which has suddenly overnight basically become a major concern to the United States.

CONAN: We're talking with Sudarsan Raghavan, a foreign correspondent with the Washington Post, just back on a visit from his post in Yemen. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And how did al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula rise to become such - capable of mounting international attacks?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Well, the current generation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula really was launched out of a 2006 jail break in which 23 al-Qaida militants escaped. They included Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who is now the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and he was a former personal assistant of Osama bin Laden. Since 2006, the group has basically the Yemen branch has merged with the Saudi Arabian branch of al-Qaida. And so now you see certainly a much more organized affiliate, you might say, and with led by Yemenis and Saudis.

And, you know, this is not the December the Christmas Day airline attempt to bomb the airliner was not the first instance that of using such tactics. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula also tried a similar tactic to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia, who's the top counterterrorism official there. And they nearly got away with it. The bomber, basically, crossed into Yemen, was able to pass several security points and blow himself up steps away from the prince, who miraculously survived.

CONAN: Crossed into Saudi Arabia is what you meant to say, I'm sure.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: That's right, exactly.

CONAN: And as you look at this organization, where is it, this is we understand large parts of this country are, well, there's nobody in control of them.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: That's absolutely correct. The government is essentially in control of the capital and some of the main cities. But out in the tribal areas, which comprise much of the country, it's ungoverned. It's, you know, it's filled with large mountains, plenty of places to hide, to have safe havens from al-Qaida militants. Many, you know, many al-Qaida has the support of many of Yemen's strong tribes, who also dislike the government. And the shared dislike has made them, you know, in some ways unify with al-Qaida.

So, the, you know, it's in these vast lawless areas that the group has managed to really gain recruits and really set up what is emerging to be a safe haven.

CONAN: And tell us about another factor as if the separatist movement in the south and the civil war in the north, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula weren't enough, one of the neighboring countries is Somalia. As you say, there are people fleeing that failed state, Somalia, to a failing state in Yemen.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: That's absolutely correct. There's, you know, Yemen, as you've noted, faces so many challenges. And the most recent one is Somalia now. There are, you know, thousands of Somali boys and teenagers who have who are entering into Yemen. Yemen has, over the years, has really treated the Somali refugees extremely well, better than any other Arab country that welcomed them.

But now that, you know, the welcome mat is kind of being pulled away a bit because of concerns that these young boys and teenagers would could possibly end up joining al-Qaida militants here, the Somalis, you know, you know, they're much worse off than Yemen, which is already the poorest country in the Arab region. But Somalis in Yemen are, you know, many young boys are basically car washers on the streets. They live in dire poverty. It's it would be you know, the Yemeni officials are concerned that al-Qaida can recruit these guys with a simple $100 a month, let's say.

CONAN: And indeed, that some of them may have already been engaged by the rebel movement and the Islamic movement in Somalia, which has links to al-Qaida too.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: That's correct. I was down in the refugee camps about a month ago, and I did meet several former Islamic militant fighters who had either defected from the Islamists in Somalia or were basically fleeing because they dont want to be recruited by them, forcibly recruited. So but the point, I think, for the Yemenis the big concern is you have a lot of, you know, young, in many cases highly trained men, boys, you might say, now inside Yemen.

CONAN: Just a quick question, Sudarsan, you previously, the Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief yesterday, as listeners may know, a bomb explosion near one of the big hotels damaged the Post's bureau there. I wonder if you've heard from your colleagues.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Oh, yes, of course. I've been in touch with them. It was miraculous that no one was killed. One of my Iraqi colleagues told me that wrote me an email saying that he was actually his chair was by one of the windows and a shrapnel flew through the window and pierced his, the back of his chair and went through it. Luckily he wasn't sitting in the chair. So that's how close our colleagues had came to really getting seriously injured and probably killed.

CONAN: NPR shares that facility with the Washington Post. We can report our colleagues we're safe too. Again miraculously. Sudarsan Raghavan, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: A foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, recently returned from two months in Yemen.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.