Is Yemen the Next Hotbed for Al Qaeda?

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WASHINGTON -- Safe havens. They're essential for any terrorist group to survive and thrive. Al Qaeda knows this well.

The group had found a sanctuary in Iraq before being decimated by Coalition forces and local tribes. Now, it is seeing its base along the Afghan/Pakistan border threatened by a new U.S. military offensive. But al Qaeda may already be turning to Plan B.

The nation of Yemen, like Pakistan's tribal regions, is rugged, mountainous and extremely tough to govern. And like Pakistan, Yemen has an al Qaeda problem.

"The Yemeni government, unfortunately, does not have a lot of control over the country," said terrorism expert Rudy Atallah, CEO of White Mountain Research. "They have control over Sana'a and just right around the capital. And that's about it. And the rest of the country is pretty much lawless."

Atallah, who has worked extensively in the Arab and Muslim world, says Yemen's instability has allowed al Qaeda to establish a foothold.

"It's easy to buy weapons in Yemen," he told CBN News. "You can go to any arms bazaar and pick up anything you want. People flow in and out of there quite a bit."

Yemen shares a porous, 1,000-mile border with Saudi Arabia to the north. It also boasts a coastal area of some 1,200 miles that the government has difficulty patrolling. As a result, Somali refugees often migrate to the country from the nearby Horn of Africa.

Although Saudi jihadists have also crossed into Yemen frequently, al Qaeda remains a largely homegrown phenomenon there.

"We subscribe to the theory that poverty and a weak economy will breed terrorism," Mohammed Al-Basha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, told CBN News. "Not a lot of people subscribe to this theory, but we do."

"In Yemen, 70 percent of the population is under 25," Al-Basha said. "Forty percent live under the poverty line. And from that 40 percent, 20 percent live under $1 a day. On top of all that, our oil reserves have depleted, and the oil production has depleted. Seventy percent of the government revenue is from oil. Our loss for the first quarter of this year was $900 million."

"With all of these factors," he continued. "It is very challenging for the government to face the radicalization process."

Indeed, Yemen and al Qaeda share a troubled history.

Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in 2000 when al Qaeda suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole off the Yemeni coast.

Yemeni fighters flooded into Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

And some 100 of the 240 remaining inmates at Guantanamo Bay prison hail from Yemen.

In addition, 16 people were killed last year when a truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen's capital city of Sana'a. 

"At the end of the day, they are again, attacking us." Al-Basha said. "We're losing revenue from tourism. Ships are not coming to our ports because they are afraid of land mines and sea mines and suicide attacks on the water. We're losing income from investments because foreign companies don't want to come and invest when you have a threat such as Al Qaeda."

The radicalization process in Yemen usually begins from within -- as extremist sheikhs target the country's large pool of unemployed young men.

"They find young teens, young men who don't have a job or who are unemployed due to the economic state, and they play on their grievances," Al-Basha said.

These clerics' reputation reaches far beyond Yemen. The American terrorist who killed a U.S. soldier outside an Army recruitment center in Arkansas this year had traveled to Yemen to study jihad.

"The homegrown problem is a group of folks that are disgruntled with the Yemeni government and also want to see their brand of sharia law dominate," Atallah told CBN News.

The Yemeni government has tried several different measures to counter the jihadist ideology. In 2007, it produced a film call "The Losing Bet" that aimed to warn Yemenis about the dangers of Islamic extremism.

Some terrorists have also been placed in a government-run rehabilitation program that seeks to turn them away from radicalism.

"We want these young guys, or former terrorists, to basically have a future," Al-Basha told CBN News. "If they have blood on their hands, then they are going to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But If you don't have blood on your hands -- you were conspiring, or we caught you at an early stage -- we want to give you a future."

But U.S. officials have questioned the program's effectiveness.

They have also criticized Yemen for releasing terrorists -- some wanted in the U.S. -- from prison.

In 2006, 23 al Qaeda suspects escaped from a Yemeni prison. Most were eventually recaptured, but the incident strained the counterterrorism partnership between Yemen and the U.S..

"I don't think the (Yemeni) government has done enough," said James Phillips, a terrorism expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The U.S. has increased its foreign aid to Yemen, but the Yemeni government has kind of dragged its feet on really going after al Qaeda." 

Still, al-Basha says the relationship between the two countries remains solid.

"The U.S. has also helped us train our counterterrorism units, has helped us with logistics," he said. "We share security and intelligence information. And it's been very steady and the cooperation is good."

Yemen would like to see more U.S. aid to boost its counterterrorism efforts. But Atallah says that does not guarantee better results.

"We can throw a lot of money at a problem," he opined. "It doesn't mean that the host nation is going to do the right thing."

Nine Christian missionaries were kidnapped by terrorists in northern Yemen in June. Three of them were killed -- the other six are still missing.

Critics say the incident calls attention to the increasing destabilization within Yemen. With the country facing an insurgency by Shiite rebels in the north and more breakaway efforts in its south, the situation could go downhill quickly -- providing al Qaeda with a chaotic situation it could deem irresistible.

*Originally aired August 5, 2009    

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CBN News
Erick Stakelbeck

Erick Stakelbeck

CBN News Correspondent

Erick Stakelbeck is a sought after authority on terrorism and national security issues with extensive experience in television, radio, and print media. Stakelbeck is a correspondent and terrorism analyst for CBN News.  Follow Erick on Twitter @Staks33.