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EDITIONS
Saturday, 3 August, 2002, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
Yemen's al-Qaeda supporters
Yemeni tribesmen
The US needs to win over the Yemeni tribal groups

On a windswept hill in the mountains of Yemen, I met a man who loves Osama Bin Laden. It was not difficult.

This man, Khaled, was one of countless Yemeni tribesmen I met, who feel a secret admiration for the man who struck America and survived.

Khaled was keen that I broadcast his message. Dressed in a white robe, combat jacket and chequered head cloth, he clearly followed the Bin Laden school of fashion.

As he cradled his Kalashnikov, he lectured me on how Osama Bin Laden was not a terrorist, nor was al-Qaeda a terrorist organisation.

US President George W Bush, on the other hand, was apparently the devil incarnate. He was, I was told, a killer of children across the Muslim world, a man not worth so much as a pair of shoes.

Yemen's choice

Such views are common in the Arab world, where America's support for Israel has generated huge, popular loathing.


Washington believes that a number of dangerous al-Qaeda operatives are lurking and plotting in the remote reaches of Yemen's tribal heartlands

But the alarming part for the West, is that Khaled told me he was "in security", that he was a member of Yemen's armed forces, the very people who are supposed to be hunting down al-Qaeda.

I came to Yemen to see for myself just how hard it is to tackle al-Qaeda in a country where most people see it as the West's problem, not theirs. I went first to the US embassy, the nerve centre of US-Yemeni co-operation in the so-called war on terror.

President Bush has laid it on the line for the Yemeni authorities, among others in the region.

"You're either with us or against us," he told them.

George Bush
Many Yemenis are distrustful of George Bush
Yemen has chosen to help. So, for the last few weeks a team of US Special Forces soldiers has been in the country, training up Yemen's fledgling counter-terrorist unit.

Big, burly men in chinos and T-shirts - I caught sight of them off-duty. They are keeping a low profile here, but US diplomats believe they are doing an essential job if Yemen is to rid itself of al-Qaeda.

Yemeni forces lack technology and training, they told me. But most of all, they lack good intelligence.

Here is the problem. Washington believes that a number of dangerous al-Qaeda operatives are lurking and plotting in the remote reaches of Yemen's tribal heartlands.

It knows they are there from electronic eavesdropping, but it cannot pin down their precise locations. For that, it needs the co-operation of the local tribes.

But the tribes do not much care for their own government. They like America even less.

Tribal heartland

Yet Washington is pushing its Yemeni allies to become better informed and then act more quickly. The trouble is, when Yemen took on al-Qaeda last December, it got a very bloody nose.

I am not quite sure how I got permission to go there, but to my surprise, the government let me travel to the scene of its embarrassing defeat.

With an escort of eight soldiers, a jeep and a mounted heavy-machine gun, I travelled east from the capital, out into the desert.


The Yemeni Government will never be able to purge this country of al-Qaeda without the co-operation of the tribes

In the hot, white glare of the Arabian summer we passed lonely government checkpoints. There would be a tattered flag, a sentry and a stone bunker where a soldier would lie sprawled out, lolling in the suffocating heat.

At one point I passed an entire army camp where nothing stirred, save for the dust-devils that swirled across the baking plain.

In the soft warm light of late afternoon we arrived at the village of Al-Husoun. From behind a wall came the low "putt-putt" of a generator. A donkey brayed and children ran after an old tyre in the dust.

It could have been any village in Arabia, except for the bullet holes. The tail-fin of an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade stuck out from a mud wall.

An old, bearded villager led me to his shattered living room and told me what happened. He had woken up, he said, to find government soldiers conducting a house-to-house search.

They were looking for a pair of al-Qaeda suspects when an airforce jet went over and broke the sound barrier.

Thinking they were under attack, the well-armed village tribesmen opened fire on the government troops. Eighteen of them died, as well as three villagers. The army withdrew, the al-Qaeda suspects remain at large.

Wake-up call

For Yemen, and perhaps even for Washington, it was a wake-up call. What happened at Al-Husoun has made one thing clear - that the Yemeni Government will never be able to purge this country of al-Qaeda without the co-operation of the tribes.

It will also need to react faster and more effectively to tip-offs from the Americans. Lastly it will need to convince its own people that al-Qaeda is bad news for Yemen.

But in a land where Osama Bin Laden is seen as preferable to George W Bush, tackling al-Qaeda is a mental as well as a physical problem.

In the current political climate in the Middle East, America is making few friends but plenty of enemies.


Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

30 Jul 02 | Newsnight
14 Mar 02 | Middle East
14 Mar 02 | Middle East
15 Feb 02 | Middle East
19 Dec 01 | Middle East
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