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Ask The Expert: Will Yemen Become A Major Al-Qaeda Sanctuary?

A Yemeni soldier sitting inside a helicopter as it patrols over a rebel stronghold (file photo)
A Yemeni soldier sitting inside a helicopter as it patrols over a rebel stronghold (file photo)
After a Nigerian national who claims to have trained with Al-Qaeda in Yemen allegedly tried to blow up an international flight on Christmas Day, and following two Yemeni military airstrikes on suspected Al-Qaeda meetings this month, RFE/RL's Abubakar Siddique spoke with regional security expert Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center about the Middle Eastern country's role in international terrorism.

RFE/RL: Numerous media reports have suggested that Yemen is emerging as a new Al-Qaeda sanctuary. How serious a threat do you think this new sanctuary poses?

Mustafa Alani: I think we have a huge exaggeration [in suggesting] that Yemen is emerging as an equivalent [sanctuary] to Afghanistan or Pakistan. The list of wanted people on charges [of having ties] to Al-Qaeda is no more than 50 people. But because Yemen faces other challenges at the same time -- the revolt of the al-Houthi [followers of Shi'a cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Shi'a Zaidiyyah sect] in the north and separatist movement [in the south] -- it is weakening the government's ability to face Al-Qaeda. But in recent weeks we witnessed two major attacks on Al-Qaeda, which really destroyed a good part of the organization inside Yemen.

RFE/RL: But given that a sizeable number of people in Yemen are sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, and the fact that Yemenis share their language and ethnic heritage with Al-Qaeda leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, do you not think this makes it easy for Al-Qaeda to operate in Yemen?

Alani: Yes, Al-Qaeda thinks that Yemen is an ideal place for a number of reasons -- tribal system, and other factors. But we still believe that Al-Qaeda tried to establish itself in Yemen but not necessarily with huge success. The Yemen organization [of Al-Qaeda] is not only for Yemen, it is for the whole Arabian Peninsula. But I believe that Yemen is doing a good job to counter Al-Qaeda activities.

For the last three or four years, Al-Qaeda tried to attack [inside Yemen] but without any success. We have a number of attempted attacks but the rate of success was very low. So yes, the challenge is there, the environment is there. But I think that Al-Qaeda so far has not really able to establish itself as a major player inside the country.

RFE/RL: You speak about the political instability, rebellion, and separatism in Yemen -- can you elaborate on the internal dynamics of instability in Yemen?

Alani: The government is facing three major challenges and one of them is Al-Qaeda. The second one, which is more serious, is the separatist movement in the south. And then you have the question of the al-Houthi revolt in the north. The Yemeni government believes that although these three groups have no direct alliance between them but they are working on undermining the government's authority and ability.

RFE/RL: There have been numerous reports about the military aid the United Sates has provided Yemen to combat Al-Qaeda. Do you see Yemen turning into a third front against Al-Qaeda after Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iraq?

Alani: I don't see all this happening in Yemen, especially after the two [recent] attacks against Al-Qaeda this Thursday [December 24] and the Thursday before [December 17]. I think these two operations basically scored a good hit against Al-Qaeda's Yemen organization and denied them when they tried to establish a safe haven. So yes, the terrorist group in Yemen is trying, but I think the countermeasures are working at the same time.

RFE/RL: Some reports have suggested that there is a lot of help available to Al-Qaeda from inside Yemen's government. For example, in 2006 some key Al-Qaeda leaders escaped from a maximum security prison in Yemen and they later pulled off attacks. Do you see this as a threat in the future?

Alani: Well, breaks from prison happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and everywhere. But the other side of the story -- the true story of Yemen -- is that out of the 23 [who escaped] in 2006, 20 were either killed or captured. Only three out of the 23 are still free. So, again, it is a success story, it is not a failure story. Even the attack on the American Embassy [in Sanna in September 2008] or the Italian Embassy [in April 2008] or other government institutions were not successful. The attacks on oil instillations were not successful.

RFE/RL: How do you look at the possibility of neighboring Somalia turning into a major sanctuary for Al-Qaeda, considering that the UN Security Council recently imposed sanctions against Eritrea for supporting the Somali Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, and given that the Somali central government is a lot weaker than in Yemen?

Alani: The environment in Somalia is more encouraging for Al-Qaeda. In Yemen we have a strong army, security services, and strong government as well. But in Somalia we are missing all this -- there is no government, no army, and no security services. So definitely, Somalia can be a candidate for Al-Qaeda; to be transformed as a major center for [Al-Qaeda] activities.

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