Yemen's Problems Pose Major Challenge for U.S. Efforts to Combat Terrorism

Extreme poverty and widespread drug use allow al Qaeda to find refuge.

Jan. 7, 2010— -- On a hillside above Yemen's capital, Yemeni counterterrorism troops conducted live fire exercises. And off in the distance trying hard not to be seen were a few men who were almost certainly the U.S. special forces sent to train these troops.

No one knows for certain how many counterterrorism forces there are, but it is probably fewer than 1,000 in a country of 25 million people.

Today, Yemeni officials said the counterterror troops are killing or capturing dozens of al Qaeda members, but there are vast lawless areas of Yemen where al Qaeda still operates freely.

"Jihadists travel to the sounds of the guns," said Maj. Gen. John Custer, commander of the U.S. intelligence center. "And if there is a conflict anywhere that can be portrayed as a religious conflict -- especially with the West -- Yemenis are going to move to the sounds of those guns."

In so many ways, Yemen is like Iraq and Afghanistan, with problems that can't be solved by the military alone. Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr Al Qirbi, argues about a need to tackle the root causes of terrorism.

"With the increasing poverty," he said, "with the increasing unemployment of young people, many in remote areas suffering from underdevelopment. This is the ground that terrorists take advantage of."

The poverty is extreme. The annual income for the 50 percent of Yemenis who are lucky enough to have jobs is about $900 per year.

Another major problem in Yemen is called "qat." It is a leafy green plant that grows all over the landscape, but it is much more than a shrub. It's actually a narcotic, chewed by almost everyone.

The high that qat produces is killing Yemeni society, as Custer has seen firsthand.

"After noon, society basically stops and probably 90 percent of the men in the country move to the 'muffrage' [smoking room]," he said. "They chew qat all afternoon and evening."

Custer estimated that much of the income in Yemen actually is used to buy qat.

U.S. officials know the challenges that Yemen presents, but with the threat to the U.S. so extreme, they have no choice but to face them.