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U.S. official: Yemen has 'significant' al Qaeda link

By Catherine Bond

SAN'A, Yemen (CNN) -- Yemen has "one of the most significant" al Qaeda organizational links in the world, composed mostly of Yemenis who received military training in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said.

Diplomatic sources said thousands of veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war are living in Yemen and are capable of launching "uncoordinated or coordinated attacks."

Al Qaeda is the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden -- believed to be living under Taliban protection in Afghanistan -- and has been linked to the September 11 attacks on the United States, the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the USS Cole attack last year in Yemen.

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Yemen's government said it keeps a close eye on these so-called "Arab-Afghans," some who lead lawful lives. The government also said it has deported about 5,000 non-Yemeni Arabs, including Arab-Afghan fighters, since 1998, the year of the embassy bombings.

While some Yemenis who fought the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan are recognized as senior opposition politicians, other "Arab-Afghans" are said to be a focus of the Yemeni government's crackdown here, since the attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The government said it has held many for questioning, including anyone travelling to and from Pakistan, which a U.S. official describes as "a door" to Afghanistan for al Qaeda sympathizers.

The U.S. official confirmed the presence of FBI agents in San'a, who stayed behind to continue investigations into the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen American sailors died in that attack, after two suicide bombers pulled alongside the warship's hull and detonated explosives.

Now, it seems the FBI has switched its attention to links between the USS Cole and the September 11 attacks. One diplomatic source said there may be suspects in San'a linked to people behind the attacks in the United States One link is said to be Khalid al-Midhar.

Al-Midhar has been identified by the U.S. Justice Department as one of the three hijackers on board American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.


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