10 Years After Cole, Yemen Becomes Militant Hotbed

Over the past decade, Yemen has become a hotbed of Islamic militancy. It is the home base for the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The organization has become more agile, lethal and opportunistic. Some terrorism experts consider al-Qaida based in Yemen to be more of a threat than al-Qaida based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Christopher Boucek, a scholar in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and co-author of Yemen on the Brink.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Ten years ago, when the U.S.S. Cole was attacked, Yemen was hardly considered a hotbed of terrorism. Over the past decade, it has become fertile ground for Islamic militancy, home base for the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Last year's attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit was linked to the group. And some terrorism experts now consider al-Qaida based in Yemen to be more of a threat to the U.S. than so-called al-Qaida Central, based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Christopher Boucek shares that view. He's an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who specializes in Islamic militancy and security issues in the Arabian Peninsula. Mr. Boucek, welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK (Scholar, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you.

BLOCK: How would you describe the strength of al-Qaida in Yemen 10 years ago, at the time the U.S.S. Cole was attacked?

Mr. BOUCEK: Well, I think it's important to note that there's a long history of Islamic militancy and terrorism and political violence in Yemen, going back into the early '90s. And in fact, al-Qaida's first attack against an American target took place in Yemen in 1992.

So there has always been this kind of low-level violence, and a large number of Yemenis actually participated in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. So there's a very long history at work here.

BLOCK: Low level of violence, though, you're saying then. What about now?

Mr. BOUCEK: I think what we see now is that the situation has escalated dramatically. And since the creation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula last year, when the Saudi and the Yemeni affiliates have all kind of merged to create one organization, the organization has become much more agile and lethal and opportunistic.

BLOCK: Well, there have been, over the years, U.S. air strikes targeting al-Qaida in Yemen. Are those ongoing still?

Mr. BOUCEK: Well, according to published reports, these stopped several months ago when a Yemeni official, a Yemeni government official, was killed inadvertently in one of these air strikes. This official was actually trying to negotiate the surrender of several al-Qaida operatives.

So officially, these air strikes have stopped. Unofficially, I'm sure that there's great cooperation and coordination between the Yemeni and the American government on counterterrorism issues.

BLOCK: You're talking about cooperation between the U.S. and the Yemeni governments, but it wasn't so long ago, I think, that the Yemeni government was seen as being complicit with al-Qaida - or at least turning a blind eye to their presence in that country, right?

Mr. BOUCEK: Well, I think if you look at all of the problems going on in the country in terms of the economy, social issues, human security issues, unemployment, corruption, the civil war in the north, the southern secessionist movement, al-Qaida is very low on the priority for the Yemeni government. And hopefully, they're more focused on this issue than they have been in the past.

BLOCK: Why do you think that al-Qaida based in Yemen is more of a threat to this country than al-Qaida based in Afghanistan or Pakistan?

Mr. BOUCEK: Well, I think if you look at what's going on in South Asia, the senior leadership of al-Qaida has really suffered from this prolonged drone campaign. There's a huge American military presence right next door. The Pakistani military is increasingly active in addressing these issues. None of those factors are going on in Yemen.

There's not a visible or large military presence anywhere nearby to Yemen, and there's not an option for that. So I think what we see is that Yemen is providing the opportunity for militants to plot and plan and mount operations. Just last week, there was an operation, you know, inside the capital against a British diplomatic convoy, the second time this year.

So I think the situation not only is worsening, but the movement in Yemen is taking advantage of the absence of the government's ability to crack down on terrorism.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Christopher Boucek. He's with the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Program, and co-author of the book "Yemen on the Brink." Mr. Boucek, thanks very much.

Mr. BOUCEK: Thank you very much.

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