Yemen safer than before but Qaeda threat remains [Archives:2004/704/Front Page]

January 19 2004

By Miral Fahmy

Yemen appears to have claimed a rare victory against al- Qaeda with help from Washington, analysts and diplomats say.
But they warn that militants still pose a threat in a country where arms are plentiful and sympathy for the al Qaeda network's holy war against the West runs high.
Sana'a, in the cross hairs of the U.S. war on terror since the September 11 attacks, has scored some major successes with the help of military training and funding from Washington. Last year, the authorities arrested Yemen's number-two al- Qaeda suspect, Mohammad al-Ahdal.
In November 2002, Yemen turned a blind eye while the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency killed a top leader of al Qaeda ) blamed for the attacks on U.S. cities ) in an airstrike there.
Sana'a has also rounded up hundreds of militants and launched a massive campaign to disarm a largely tribal population that prizes automatic weapons and grenades. Roads linking cities bristle with army checkpoints, where tribesmen are required to deposit their weapons before carrying onto their destination.
“The most important thing is that the Yemeni authorities have in one way or another arrested or eliminated the top echelon of al- Qaeda,” U.S. ambassador Edmund Hull told Reuters.
“Yemen has moved from reactive measures to proactive measures. It's not 100 percent yet, but Yemen has improved its capabilities and now the challenge is to maintain these efforts.”
Western diplomats agree security in Yemen has improved in leaps and bounds since the September 11 attacks.

The last major attack in Yemen was the bombing of the French supertanker Limburg in 2002, which occurred two years after al- Qaeda suspects killed 17 American sailors in a suicide attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole.
Last year passed without incident, despite fears of a surge in violence due to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and officials are patting themselves on the back.
“Yemen has done a lot to restore security and stability and we have expended a lot of effort in counter-terrorism,” Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Reuters.

Saudi influence
Security experts, however, say Yemen remains a place that al- Qaeda operatives see as home ) the network's leader Osama bin Laden is of Yemeni descent.
Some clerics still preach hatred for the United States and the West and almost every male who lives outside the capital Sana'a bears arms.
“Weapons remain a big problem, as you can easily buy anything from surface-to-air missiles to hand grenades and walk around with them here,” an Arab diplomat said.
Yemen's proximity to bin Laden's birthplace Saudi Arabia, which is battling a surge of al- Qaeda attacks, also makes it difficult to stem the stream of funds and extremist ideology from the kingdom, analysts said.
“Saudi Arabia remains a model for Yemeni militants and they receive a lot of funding from there,” said one Western diplomat. “Many of these militants are a product of the Saudi education system, which breeds extremism.”
Yemen and Saudi Arabia have in the last year tightened security at their border, a traditional route for militants, their money and weapons. Officials say security cooperation has improved but privately concede the border is too long and porous to patrol properly.
Trying to fight militancy at its roots, Yemen has appointed a leading judge to correct fanatic beliefs through a better understanding of the Koran and Islam.
Judge Hamood al-Hitar heads a committee dedicated to holding dialogues with detained militants to “reform” their thoughts.
While some diplomats criticize Yemen for indiscriminately rounding up suspects, they agree that Hitar has probably succeeded in preventing low-level militant attacks.
But Hitar himself said the programme, launched in 2002, will have little effect on die-hard bin Laden supporters. “So far we've had a positive experience, but the problem is those with the al- Qaeda mentality,” he said.
Yemen may be safer today than a few years ago, analysts say, but in the minds of many people it remains a place where tribesmen kidnap foreigners and Islamist fundamentalists slay missionaries and Western employees.
“Yemen has go to do more to be seen as less of a threat,” said a Yemeni official who declined to be named. “Things are better, but they certainly are not excellent.”