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11.02.10

Yemen Defends Itself

Battling charges that the country is doing nothing to apprehend major terrorists, a top Yemeni official talks back.

As the U.S. and its allies intensified efforts to unravel the plot behind the bombs mailed from Yemen to Chicago last week, a top Yemeni official defended his country against criticism, telling The Daily Beast that the government is doing what it can to apprehend al Qaeda suspects within its borders.

In an interview in London on Monday, Abdul-Aziz Abdul Ghani, the head of one of Yemen’s branches of parliament, the Shura Council, said security forces are actively hunting for the American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, the man who U.S. officials say has emboldened al Qaeda in Yemen by inspiring, recruiting, and, perhaps, coaching recruits to the network.

“We're doing all we can,” said Abdul Ghani, who heads the advisory Shura Council, pointing out that Americans themselves had had their own history of trouble tracking leaders of al Qaeda. “He’s just like bin Laden, hiding in the Tora Bora mountains,” Abdul Ghani said of al-Awlaki. “Yemen has its own Tora Bora mountains. We're trying our best, but [we] can’t find him.”

As Yemeni officials tend to do, Abdul Ghani insisted al Qaeda is active in many countries, and said Yemen was unfairly being singled out. He denounced what he called "this overblown and strong reaction" to the parcel-bombing attempt. “Every time something happens in Yemen, the international media machine becomes very harsh,” he said.

In Yemen, security forces and al Qaeda fighters clash on a regular basis. And the government spends many times more on its military than on public services, noted Yemen analyst Ginny Hill, with the London-based Chatham Group.

Yemen has a history of sheltering alleged al Qaeda figures, even giving a top political appointment to someone who, like al-Awlaki, is on the U.S. government’s list of global terrorists.

Despite the effort, Hill said, "the al Qaeda leadership remains intact in Yemen."

To combat the group, the U.S. is more than doubling its military aid to Yemen this year. Already, the American administration has deployed Navy ships off the coast that can be used for missile strikes against groups in the country, and American commandos are helping train Yemeni special-operations squads. The U.S. government has also provided Humvees and night-vision goggles as well as arms and ammunition to the Yemeni military.

U.S. counterterrorism officials are especially concerned about al-Awlaki, who they believe has become a spiritual and operational leader for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and may be the mastermind behind the cargo-plane bombs.

The Parcel Bombers’ Direct HitIntelligence officials point to al-Awlaki as the architect behind several recent attacks that targeted Americans. According to reports, there are email links between the radical cleric and the suspected Fort Hood shooter. Investigators also say al-Awlaki had links to the so-called underwear bomber, accused of trying to bring down an airplane last Christmas, as well as the failed Times Square bombing.

But al-Awlaki is also the charismatic son of a favorite of Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who once made the elder al-Awlaki a minister in his cabinet. He is also a relative of Yemen's prime minister, who has condemned the reported U.S. capture-or-kill order against al-Awlaki. And these powerful family connections may protect him from arrest.

Furthermore, al-Awlaki is a member of a branch of Yemen's influential Awalik tribe. Tribal members are believed to be hiding al Qaeda fighters from several nations, if not al-Awlaki himself, in tribal lands in the remote mountains of Yemen's southern Shabwah governorate. The mountains are a place where tribal men, as with many Yemeni men, wear long, ceremonial daggers at their belts. More to the point, tribal members also have AK-47s and grenade launchers, owing to arms markets and pervasive arms smuggling in the area. Al Qaeda figures have made the mountains of Shabwah a base, taking advantage of tribal laws that stress hospitality and protection for guests.

Yemeni journalists say Shabwah's governor recently went to tribal elders to plead with them for a measure of support – telling them that even if they couldn't keep their sons from fighting alongside the tribes' al Qaeda guests, to at least not give al Qaeda intelligence against the government itself.

Observers also point out that Yemen has a history of sheltering alleged al Qaeda figures, even giving a top political appointment to someone who, like al-Awlaki, is on the U.S. government’s list of global terrorists. Demands to arrest the man, cleric Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, have been ignored and Zindani is often a fixture at public rallies in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

Yemeni authorities also appear to have a problem keeping suspected al Qaeda fighters behind bars. Jailbreaks from Yemeni prisons freed what many American officials took to be a suspicious number of al Qaeda culprits in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

Should Yemeni authorities decide to apprehend al-Awlaki, it’s unclear if they would put him on the stand. Although al-Awlaki is an American citizen by birth, he also holds Yemeni citizenship because he has Yemeni parents, and Yemen's government has previously vowed never to turn over al-Awlaki to the American government.

Despite Yemen’s insistence that they’re doing what they can to apprehend al Qaeda suspects, it seems that if the U.S. wants to get their hands on al-Awlaki, they will have to get him themselves.

But the United States doesn’t seem to have tried all that hard to get al Awlaki until recently. U.S. intelligence officials reportedly were tracking al-Awlaki's communications in Yemen up until 2009. When a Washington Post story mentioned the intelligence surveillance, al-Awlaki, alarmed, went into hiding, he later said on an al Qaeda video

Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad and Cairo. Before coming to the Post, she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. This year, she graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.