Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Thursday, 24 June 2010 11:50 UK

Is Yemen becoming a jihadist plotter's paradise?

By Frank Gardner
BBC News

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has many problems, including a wild province that is al-Qaeda's home on the Arabian peninsula. But a US-backed military campaign against the militants may be making matters worse.

Sanaa, capital of Yemen
Sanaa is one of the world's oldest continuously-inhabited cities

The Yemeni ambassador looked uncomfortable.

A small, affable man in a tan suit, Mohamed Taha Mustafa sat patiently at the conference table in London last week, while his country's woes were counted out in public.

Dwindling oil reserves, rising unemployment, a capital city that risks being the world's first to run out of water, a simmering insurgency in the north, a separatist movement in the south, and now a growing base for al-Qaeda in the tribal heartland in-between.

"Help us," said the ambassador when it was his turn to speak.

"Come and invest in our country, we have so many projects."

But I could see the Kuwaiti ambassador shaking his head. His country, he explained, could never forgive Yemen for not condemning Saddam's invasion, back in 1990.

"Oh for heaven's sake," whispered a fellow journalist. "They really need to get over that, it was all of 20 years ago."

But memories are long in the Middle East. Privately, Arab diplomats admit that as long as Yemen's soldier-turned-president Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in power, Yemen will never be fully rehabilitated by its rich Gulf Arab neighbours.

'Growing menace'

But Yemen is worrying them, and for good reason.

A man walks past the southern headquaters of Yemen's intelligence services building in Aden as black smoke billows from it following an attack on 19 June 2010
Several militants were freed during the attack on the security building

A few days ago, just after dawn in the steamy Indian Ocean port of Aden, a van drew up and four men got out, armed with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Within hours they had shot and blasted their way through the southern headquarters of the government's security apparatus, surprising officers at an early morning flag-raising ceremony.

Seven officers were killed, and a cleaning lady, two more women and a child, and the attackers left with a number of militants they had freed from the cells. Everyone immediately suspected al-Qaeda.

Reformed and reborn in Yemen in January last year, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has become a growing menace not just for Yemen's government but for others further afield.

Last August it dispatched a suicide bomber to Saudi Arabia.

Pretending to give himself up, he managed to get into the same room as the prince in charge of counter-terrorism, then detonated his hidden explosives.

In the end, he was the only one to die, but his masters in Yemen promised to send others and in December they dispatched Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to Detroit with enough explosives in his underwear to bring down a plane, if his device had worked.

Yemen suddenly mattered.

Tribal friction

So who are al-Qaeda in Yemen and how have they managed to build a base there?

A map of Yemen showing Sanaa, Marib and Aden
Formed in January 2009 by a merger between al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Yemen
Based in eastern Yemen
Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden
Deputy leader is Saudi ex-Guantanamo inmate Said al-Shihri
Aims to topple Saudi monarchy and Yemeni government, and establish an Islamic caliphate
Came to prominence with Riyadh bombings in 2003, and 2008 attack on US embassy in Sanaa
Blamed for attempt to blow up US passenger jet in December 2009

AQAP is not very big. It has perhaps a few hundred dedicated members under arms, mostly Saudis and Yemenis.

Some have come back from years of incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, pretended to renounce violence, then slipped across the border from Saudi Arabia.

Others were involved in a mass jailbreak from a Yemeni prison in 2006.

Today they are to be found mostly in Marib, a restless tribal province east of the capital.

When I first went there in 1985, I was struck by the wild, lawless nature of the place.

Our taxi driver drove with a loaded pistol sliding around the dashboard, attempting to steer while he combed his hair and chewed the narcotic leaf khat, all at the same time.

Years later, in 2002, I suggested to Marib's provincial governor that Western governments suspected his province was harbouring a number of al-Qaeda leaders.

"Most unlikely," he replied with a smile. "We have complete control."

But later that week, when I took an escort of trusted tribesmen into a remote valley, I found evidence of the sort of heavy-handed government tactics that were turning tribesmen into insurgents.

An elderly farmer showed me the tailfin of an unexploded missile he said the air force had fired into his mud-walled house in its pursuit of the militants.

Now, eight years on, something very similar is happening.

In Yemen the tribes do not much care for al-Qaeda, but nor do they have much love for their government

Urged on by Washington, the Yemeni government is engaged in a determined campaign to eliminate, or at least contain, al-Qaeda within its borders.

The CIA's unmanned aerial drone strikes have resumed, much to the annoyance of ordinary Yemenis, and government tanks and artillery have been shelling the houses of suspected militants.

Black smoke rises from an oil pipeline near Marib after it was blown up by Yemeni tribesmen
Oil pipelines were attacked when a deputy governor was killed

Late last month an airstrike went badly wrong, killing Marib's deputy governor and his bodyguards, the very man who was trying to persuade the tribes not to side with al-Qaeda.

There was a furious reaction. The tribesmen blew up oil pipelines and brought down electricity pylons.

The president has had to order an official enquiry.

The truth is that in Yemen the tribes do not much care for al-Qaeda, but nor do they have much love for their government, accusing it - with some justification - of corruption and mismanagement.

Left to fester, Washington fears that Yemen could easily turn into a plotter's paradise, riddled with jihadist training camps.

And so the airstrikes and the largely unseen military campaign continues.

And when rumours spread that Yemenis are being killed on Washington's orders the tribes see red, making it easier for al-Qaeda to recruit, train and hide in this bleak, barren landscape.

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Profile: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
07 Jan 10 |  Americas
Yemen voices on security struggle
15 Jan 10 |  Middle East
Yemen country profile
07 Jun 11 |  Country profiles


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