Yemen: 'Major Staging Base' for Al Qaeda

Q and A with former CIA official and al Qaeda expert Bruce Riedel.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2010— -- Former CIA official and al Qaeda expert Bruce Riedel shared his expertise on the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with ABC News. He served in the CIA from 1977 to 1991 and has served as a senior adviser to three U.S. presidents on Middle East issues. He has traveled to Yemen extensively throughout the years. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Q: Is Yemen a safe haven for terrorists? What kinds of terrorists? Why Yemen?

A: Yemen has been a safe haven and stronghold of al Qaeda since the late 1990s. Yemen is where Osama Bin Laden's family originates from, in the southwestern part of the country.

It has a very attractive arena for al Qaeda, because it is one of the most lawless, ungoverned spaces in the entire world.

No government in the history of Yemen has really been able to enforce its writ throughout the entire country. And it is precisely these types of ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan and Somalia and in Yemen and in Pakistan that al Qaeda has always thrived.

I don't know that there are significant other terrorist groups based in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the merger of the al Qaeda cells in Yemen and the al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia. That merger happened about a year ago because the Saudis had been so effective in repressing al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia that its infrastructure in the Kingdom itself was largely destroyed. And they had to go to Yemen to find sanctuary where they can operate.

Q: Did the Bush Administration pay adequate attention to Yemen as a threat in terms of terrorism?

A: The Bush Administration tried to deal with this problem, particularly in the aftermath of the attack on the USS Cole that occurred in the last months of the Clinton Administration. But they found it very difficult to. The Yemeni government has many other priorities on its plate. It has an insurgency in the northern part of the country, which has been getting worse in the last year. It has a secessionist movement in the southern part of the country, which used to be South Yemen before 1990, which was trying very hard to break away from the country.

The economy is largely dependent on oil exports but Yemen's oil reserves are literally drying out. So it comes less and less. So there are many other priorities the Yemenis have, and ever since 1990, when Yemen sided with Iraq in the first Gulf War, relations between the United States and Yemen have been very scratchy. The Cole investigation made them even more scratchy because both sides felt that the other was not fully cooperating, probably correctly.

So trying to get the Yemenis to focus on al Qaeda has been a very difficult and frustrating task for the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration and now the Obama Administration.

Q: Has the Obama administration paid adequate attention to Yemen as a threat? Did either administration underestimate the threat?

A: I think the Obama Administration has seen this as a very significant problem from day one. The president's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, early on focused on this as one of the key priorities in dealing with al Qaeda. But the same problems that bedeviled Clinton and Bush before them still bedevil Obama, which is the Saleh government is weak, it has other problems and much of the security services have been heavily infiltrated by Jihadist sympathizers over the year.

So, for example, there have been repeated jailbreaks of senior al Qaeda operatives out of prisons in Yemen, including the current head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was in a Yemeni jail and broke out in 2006. And many of these jailbreaks have all the earmarks of inside jobs.

Individual incidents aside, I give the Obama administration credit for seeing this problem early on and for recognizing that it was getting worse over the course of time. But there are no easy solutions and no magic answers to these problems.

Q: How big is the U.S. intelligence presence in Yemen?

A: For operational sources and methods and reasons, I'm going to pass on that question.

A Major Staging Base for Al Qaeda

Q: Has the government of Yemen done enough to combat the threat of terrorism?

A: I think the government of Yemen is still struggling to find the resources and the resolve to take on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while it manages all these other security threats, which are much more direct and more immediate for the Yemeni government. They also need help, and I think the Obama Administration is wise to double military assistance to Yemen and to step up intelligence cooperation.

But we're in this for the long haul, there's no "made-in-America" solution to this problem. Drones can take out senior al Qaeda officials, and some have, but even the drones depend in the end on Yemenis to provide us the information on where the targets are. And to fill the ungoverned spaces in Yemen requires Yemenis, not Americans.

I think after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the notion of putting American boots on the ground in any significant numbers in another country in the Middle East is not one Americans are very eager to think about.

Q: How big is the threat now in Yemen in terms of terrorists and al Qaeda? How big is the threat there, versus Afghanistan and Pakistan?

A: I would say the Yemen, in the last year, and in particular in the last few months, has emerged as a major staging base for al Qaeda to reach beyond Yemen, and attacking American targets in Yemen, but now to attack inside the United States itself.

The Fort Hood massacre was not launched by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but it's pretty clear that Maj. Hasan was in touch with parts of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that they were encouraging him to do this. And, of course, we now have Christmas Day.

All that said, al Qaeda in Yemen is a subsidiary of the al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The head of the snake is in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it's the al Qaeda core that provides strategic direction to cells like the one in Yemen or North Africa or Indonesia.

Q: Indonesia was not listed as a country of interest for new TSA rules that require special screening for citizens of that country entering the U.S. Are we paying enough attention to al Qaeda in Indonesia?

A: Well, the al Qaeda cell in Indonesia has been under severe attack from the government for the last several years, and they may feel the government of Indonesia's security procedures are good enough, I don't know. That's a case-by-case and you really have to know what are the procedures of each airport. So I really can't comment on how good those procedures are.

Q: What are your recommendations for dealing with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen going forward?

A: Recommendations for dealing with this problem is that we have to try to push the Yemeni authorities to see this as not just a threat to us but, in very real terms, a threat to them as well. And that means having intense engagement with the Saleh government at all levels; political, intelligence, military. And being willing to provide concrete support to help them.

The last thing I would say about recommendations is that I think the administration needs to recognize that this is not just a counterterrorism problem, but a larger problem of the U.S. relationship with the Islamic world. The president made an excellent start by addressing those larger issues in Cairo, but talking the talk is not enough. He needs to continue to push forward on issues like Arab-Israeli peace, the Kashmir conflict, and other issues which serve as the recruiting forces for al Qaeda, not just in Yemen, but on the global stage.

Al Qaeda today is the world's first truly global terrorist organization, and we can only defeat it if we see it in those terms, as a group that has created cells from Mauritania to Indonesia, and in the Muslim diasporas in Europe, and, now, increasingly among a small minority of disaffected Muslims in the United States of America. And to counter that threat requires not just the counterterrorism and military measures, but it also means countering the ideology that attracts this minority.

Q: Where else should we be looking that we're currently not?

A: I think the most worrisome indications are that groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that attacked Mumbai a year ago November, are becoming increasingly parts of the al Qaeda global network. And groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba have global supporters in Pakistani diaspora communities in the United States, in Canada, throughout Western Europe.

We have the case of the Pakistani-American David Headley, who was part of the casing of Mumbai for the Lashkar-e-Taiba attack and who was in contact with a very, very senior al Qaeda operative, Ilyas Kashmiri, which is why the FBI finally closed in on him, and arrested him last October.

And groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which are on the radar screen of the intelligence community, are less on the radar screen of governments more broadly, but could become even more pressing threats in the future.

Click here to read Bruce Riedel's full biography, or to find his articles on al Qaeda in Yemen.