The Growing Power Of Al-Qaida In Yemen

Read Robert Worth's piece, "Is Yemen The Next Afghanistan?"

Racked by political chaos and tribal feuds, Yemen is one of the Middle East's poorest countries. It's also increasingly a base of operations for al-Qaida propaganda and attacks on the U.S. and other nations. Robert Worth, Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times, talks about why Yemen may be the next Afghanistan.

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On Christmas Day, the attempt to blow up an airliner over the city of Detroit focused attention on a country most of us know little about, Yemen, and an organization most had never heard of, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Tucked away on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and about to run out of oil. It's home to feuding tribes, a secession movement, a civil war, increased violence and more and more to an offshoot of al-Qaida with, as we learned on Christmas, wide-ranging ambitions.

In the cover story of the most recent New York Times magazine, reporter Robert Worth writes that Yemen offers al-Qaida the perfect combination of tribal hospitality, political chaos and military opportunity. If you've been to Yemen, if you have questions for Robert Worth about al-Qaida in Yemen, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Robert Worth is a reporter for the Times and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program with us.

Mr. ROBERT WORTH (Correspondent, The New York Times): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And your article paints a picture of an increasingly floundering Yemeni government. How much of the country does the government actually run?

Mr. WORTH: Well, it's certainly in control in the major cities. I think sometimes people exaggerate slightly the sense that they're out of control. But in rural Yemen, which after all most of the population -and it's unusual in that way - does live in rural areas, there's very little presence of a government. And especially in some of these areas where al-Qaida is said to be, which form basically sort of a belt to the east of the capital - there's very little presence by the government, no - very few working schools, very little police. It's mostly governed by tribes.

CONAN: Were you able to travel in those areas?

Mr. WORTH: No. I've traveled pretty extensively in Yemen over my five or six trips there. But I have not been to those governorates.

CONAN: And that is because it's just too dangerous?

Mr. WORTH: It's too dangerous and the government is very keen to prevent people like me from going there out of fear that they'd get kidnapped or whatever.

CONAN: And that is not an unjustified fear.

Mr. WORTH: No, it's not.

CONAN: There are stories of people who've been kidnapped and held for political purposes but much more often held just for ransom.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. And in the past, actually, especially during the 1990s, it was quite common for tribes to kidnap people. And in fact, it wasn't really such a dangerous thing. Some people - European tourists apparently - wanted to get kidnapped because usually it was the tribe that wanted something. They wanted a new school. They wanted money from the government, whatever. And they would treat the hostages very, very nicely and give them whatever food they wanted and so forth. Never - I don't think any of them never came to harm, really. That changed with the advent of militant terrorists about 10 years ago.

CONAN: And the country, as you describe it, the government - the ruler has been in place, what, 30 years, but nevertheless his tribal policies and how he deals with the various tribes there seem to be absolutely central to the whole idea of the country.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. That's right. A lot of people give him enormous credit for that in the sense that he knows how to work with the tribes. He knows how to get what he wants from the various different groupings there. And he knows how to play people off against each other, which is - certainly it's not something he invented. That's been a way of dealing with - a way of ruling countries in the Middle East for a long, long time. He just happens to be much better at it than his predecessors, and that's why he's been in power for 32 years.

CONAN: And you had the opportunity to interview him, to meet him at one point.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. I met him in June 2008.

CONAN: And what kind of a guy was he?

Mr. WORTH: Well, he certainly comes off as sort of tough. He grew up in the military. He's sort of a little bit brusque. When the subject of the United States came up, he was defensive because he feels that they're trying to push him around. I think you'd probably get the same response from a lot of different rulers in the Middle East.

CONAN: And the situation is that the United States probably is trying to push him around.

Mr. WORTH: Well, yeah, to some extent, absolutely. They - there are some people who are wanted by the FBI on terrorism charges, and he is reluctant in some cases to turn them over for very good domestic political reasons, and it doesn't play well for him to just give the United States what it wants.

CONAN: Nevertheless, there are people in the country that, as you describe it, he has come to see as a threat to his rule.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. That's right. And that's increasingly true. The American officials came to him last fall and presented him with, as I understand it, with all kinds of evidence, making clear that al-Qaida was not just blowing up the occasional, you know, outpost here and there or the occasional embassy, that they were actually targeting him and his family. And his family holds all kinds of positions of importance in the country. So he - starting about that time, he began to cooperate - this is what American officials tell me - much more closely and became much, much more serious about fighting al-Qaida.

CONAN: Your story is structured around an airstrike which hit a house that was being used by al-Qaida, five young men were killed. And from your description, there appears to be no doubt that they were members of al-Qaida, but very junior members of al-Qaida.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. That's right. As far as we knew, they were not planning operations, but they seemed to be members. And the best known person in the area was not killed by the strike.

CONAN: And he is the subject of a lot of controversy because the tribes say, well, we have a decision to make here. Do we welcome these people as guests, which is the tradition not just in Yemen but throughout the Arab world? Do they continue to protect them? Or are they causing too much trouble for us to continue to harbor them?

Mr. WORTH: That's right. And in this case, they decided to eject him. I think the truth is that probably most tribes in Yemen do not want anything to do with al-Qaida because they're too dangerous, that they realize, especially now, that they may end up, you know, with an airstrike if they do that. But there are some - I think there's a minority of tribal groups or individuals in rural Yemen who realize that dealing with al-Qaida can, at the least, be a kind of bargaining chip. That if you go to the government and say, look, I can get rid of this guy but for a price, that's a deal they're willing to make.

CONAN: Another situation that you also describe is this guy says, I can bring in 30 teachers to open a school here. You've not had a school here. Yes, of course, they're going to be taught what we would like them to be taught, but nevertheless, it would be an opportunity to educate your children.

Mr. WORTH: Absolutely. Most Yemenis live, as I understand it, on less than $2 a day. And rural Yemen is just extraordinarily poor all the across the country. And so, there's a terrible, terrible need for schools, for teachers, for basic services. I mean, you know, Yemen is running out of water in a way that I believe no other country in the world is. So there's - they'll take anything they can get.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Worth, a reporter for the New York Times, about his recent article "Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?" 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And George(ph) is on the line from San Jose.

GEORGE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi.

GEORGE: Robert, there was a very interesting and concerning program on PBS called "The Spy Factory." And a short summary of this was that the National Security Agency had tracked two al-Qaida operatives to Kuala Lumpur and discovered that they had USA visas. And instead of revoking their visas, the NSA surprisingly didn't tell anyone. And these two operatives entered the United States and lived in San Diego under their own names. They went on to board those 9/11 planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

And the Yemen connection here is that there was a safe house in Yemen that - and they showed a picture of it on this show - that these San Diego al-Qaida operatives would phone in order to contact bin Laden. What is known about that safe house?

Mr. WORTH: You know, I'm sorry, I don't know very much about that particular incident. I believe, though, that the man we were talking about earlier, Fahd al-Quso, who's the Yemeni member of al-Qaida who was thrown out of this area, was involved in that Kuala Lumpur conversation.

GEORGE: Yeah. I believe that was one of their names. But you don't know anything about the status of the safe house? They actually showed a picture of it, so there's no mystery about where it is. It was in Yemen, a yellow house, and...

CONAN: There may be a lot of yellow houses in Yemen. George, thanks very much for the call. But I'm not sure we can...

GEORGE: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: ...follow up on your question. The interesting part of your story is that there seems to be an absolute plan on the behalf of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the organization formed by merging al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia and al-Qaida in Yemen. They seem to be - have the future set out and know what they want to do.

Mr. WORTH: Yeah, they do. It's interesting. They - and about 2002 was when U.S. really became - or 2001, became really concerned about al-Qaida in Yemen, you know, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And in 2002, the U.S. killed the leader of al-Qaida in Yemen in a drone strike. At that time, the organization wasn't really that sophisticated or organized.

And after the drone strike, it seems to have sort of drifted and remained chaotic for a while. But at a certain point, more people began joining it, and they became increasingly sort of well-organized. And then they were joined by Saudis. Saudi Arabia had conducted a really effective counterterrorism campaign and gotten rid of most of its, you know, homegrown militants. Some of them began to swim across the border into Yemen, so that helped a lot.

And they began to sort of put out more and more recruitment materials. They have a magazine, internet magazine that's very well put together. So they know exactly what they want. And particularly after this merger with the Saudi group, they seem to be carrying more and more attacks.

CONAN: Their plan is to overthrow the government in Yemen, establish an Islamic government there, and go on from there to overthrow the government in Saudi Arabia, and reestablish the Caliphate.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. That's right. The rhetoric is a lot like that of, you know, so-called al-Qaida affiliates all over the world who all talk about establishing a Caliphate. Of course, once you ask them what they mean by that, the details get pretty fuzzy.

CONAN: It may be a while before they have the opportunity to explain it in full. But, in any case, the United States, as you describe it, does not seem to have much of a plan, but is really going from situation to situation, more reacting than planning.

Mr. WORTH: Well, that's right. I mean, you know, in fairness, it's an awfully complicated and difficult situation in Yemen, and it's hard to know exactly how to handle it. I think the United States has often been somewhat distrustful of President Saleh who, although he - you know, as I said earlier, has an amazingly masterful way of playing off different groups against each other, he also counts for his domestic political sport on some people who the U.S. views as sort of terrorist sympathizers or clerics who encourage an atmosphere that promotes jihadism.

So there has been difficulty in knowing exactly how to stop him from doing that. The economy is a terrible problem in Yemen. It's such incredible poverty. It's running out of water. It's running out of oil. Education is a huge challenge.

And actually, another challenge that doesn't get much attention but it's really important in Yemen is just basic government administration. There's a huge government bureaucracy that's terribly inefficient. And the simple effort to reform that and to make it work with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who would be very angry if they lost their jobs is a real challenge.

CONAN: A figure who does not get much mention in your story is that of the cleric Awlaki, who was formerly in northern Virginia, relocated to Yemen and said to have had a role in the Christmas bombing and in other situations as well.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. That's right. I mean, I think most Yemenis wouldn't have heard of him until more recently. But now, you know, he's got a global following thanks to his internet sermons. And now that the United States is clearly after him, he's become much, much better known there. He's, as you know, a tremendously charismatic guy who has now publicly identified himself with al-Qaida in Yemen.

I know his father somewhat, who's a much better known - was anyway until recently, a much better known figure than he was, because the father was an important academic figure, very, very well respected man. And so, Awlaki, all of a sudden, has become kind of a star in his own right.

CONAN: And in terms of the presidents - is this somebody the United States should support in fear of the alternative? Nevertheless, his record is not an altogether, well, benign one.

Mr. WORTH: Yeah. Well, that's a tough question to answer. There are people, even, you know, harsh critics of the president in Yemen who will say the best thing would be not to get rid of him. The best thing would be if we could somehow persuade him to change his policies because he's the only person who is connected to every figure in the country and has a history with them and has the ability, the background to sort of, you know, to make things come together.

Whereas if you picked someone new, you know, for tribal alliance reasons or political reasons or whatever, that person might be subject to all kinds of vulnerabilities and things could collapse and...

CONAN: Who knows what the future would bring. You also mentioned - we were talking about one airstrike which did hit five young members of al-Qaida and resulted in a decision by one of the tribes to evict the al-Qaida cell that was developing in that neighborhood. You also mentioned another airstrike, where the precision was not so great. Women and children were among those killed. Where it caused so much anger that that place is now, well, a sanctuary for al-Qaida.

Mr. WORTH: That's right. I think U.S. faces the same kind of risk in Yemen that it faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is that, you know, they've got this policy of trying to take out al-Qaida leaders, but your intelligence isn't always that good and things like this happen. And this caused tremendous anger, and in fact it blended into a sort of separate insurgency. There's - I don't know if insurgency is the word for it, but there's an independence movement in southern Yemen. And the anger over these killings of innocent people blew up even further than it would have.

CONAN: Robert Worth, a reporter for The New York Times. You can find a link to his article on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Robert Worth, thanks very much.

Mr. WORTH: A pleasure to be with you.

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