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How to Deal with al Qaida in Yemen

Aired January 06, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, how dangerous is the threat from al Qaeda in Yemen? As U.S. President Barack Obama faults America's intelligence system, saying that it failed in a "potentially disastrous way," just before the botched al Qaeda attack on an airliner over Christmas.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

President Obama is vowing to target al Qaeda wherever it takes root, after a terrorist who joined up with extremists in Yemen allegedly tried to blow up a U.S. passenger jet. Al Qaeda merged its operations in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, becoming al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a year ago, and it set up its base in Yemen.

U.S. General David Petraeus believes that Yemen is now a safe haven for al Qaeda. And last weekend, he promised the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, more American help.

But the Yemeni government says the threat has been exaggerated. As al Qaeda gets pushed out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, is Yemen now the new war? CNN's Paula Newton reports from the capital, Sana'a.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For al Qaeda, the renewed campaign in Yemen represents a stunning comeback. The bombing of the USS Cole by an al Qaeda suicide ring in 2000 was a prized terrorist victory. President Bill Clinton was in office at the time. A decade later, it's his wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, characterizing the situation in Yemen in the starkest of terms.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The instability in Yemen is a threat to regional stability and even global stability.

NEWTON: Yemeni officials insist they've always warned the U.S. of the al Qaeda threat and have asked for aid, military and intelligence support. Only recently, they say, have they had much help. Yemen is now struggling to cope with not just a re-energized al Qaeda, but a rebel movement in the north and a separatist rebellion in the south. Add to that grinding poverty, an acute water shortage, and a country awash with weapons and potential terror recruits, many nursing a fervent anti-Americanism.

In 2008, the suicide bombing at the U.S. embassy in Yemen killed nearly 20 people, but did not penetrate the embassy walls. Yemeni terrorist connections are deep and far-reaching. Osama bin Laden's father was Yemeni. Many top al Qaeda operatives are Yemeni. Almost half of the Guantanamo Bay detainees that remain are Yemeni.

Some of those already released from Guantanamo have returned to fight for al Qaeda, like its deputy commander in Yemen, Said Ali al-Shihri, who was released from Guantanamo in November 2007.

And then there is the chase for Anwar al-Awlaki, an American Yemeni cleric, the so-called Internet sheikh, who is believed to be hiding out in Yemen. He may have been in communication with alleged Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and described accused Fort Hood killer, Major Nidal Hasan, as a hero.

The last thing the U.S. and its allies need is for their counterterrorism efforts in Yemen to set off an al Qaeda battle cry in an already challenged nation.


NEWTON: Already again today, Christiane, here outside of Sana'a, the Yemeni government claims that it hunted down another three al Qaeda operatives and that they are now in custody.

Christiane, the operation here will have to go this way for quite some time. It will be the Yemeni government taking the lead. You know, the government here is so weakened it cannot afford to look like it's taking its orders from American commanders. For that reason, you will see a lot more covert, pointed, and -- the United States hopes -- effective management of the issue here on the ground.

You know, many leaders from the United States have been beating a path through this door (ph) now, Christiane, for eight or nine months. They know now that the problem is acute, and they need to get a handle on it in the next few months -- Christiane?

AMANPOUR: Paula Newton, thank you so much for joining us from the Yemeni capital.

And now also joining us from Sana'a, Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi.

Welcome, Mr. Foreign Minister, to the program.

ABU BAKR AL-QIRBI, YEMENI FOREIGN MINISTER: Good morning. And glad to be on the program.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, you've just seen that program. You heard what Paula Newton reported. How big a threat do you believe al Qaeda is in Yemen?


AL-QIRBI: You may remember, Christiane, that after the September 11th attacks, Yemen at that time was accused that it's going to be the next Afghanistan and the -- the new haven for al Qaeda.

AMANPOUR: That's happened.

AL-QIRBI: Events prove that was wrong. No, it didn't happen. I think over the last eight or nine years, we proved that Yemen wasn't a haven for al Qaeda. And -- and until now, it's not a haven.

There are al Qaeda operatives. The challenge we face is part -- partly -- is a result of the failure of our cooperation in countering terrorism, because as you have -- your reporter has said, that there is a risk of al Qaeda operatives coming to Yemen from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, from other places, and I -- my question is, if they come to Yemen from all these remote areas, how can they move across so many boundaries without being detected and apprehended?

AMANPOUR: Mr. Foreign Minister, you said that, quote, "hundreds of al Qaeda militants" are planning terror attacks from Yemen. How serious is this problem, then, in your view?

AL-QIRBI: I said there are 200 to 300 al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Now, what role they play, what they will do, how many of them are going to undertake terrorist attacks is something that is obviously of concern to us, to Yemen. And this is why we always stress the importance of cooperation with the United States, with other countries in the region, because unless there is a concerted effort and a very intense exchange of intelligence information, we are going to fall into the lapses that led to a Nigerian getting to Detroit.

AMANPOUR: OK. Let me ask you this. For Yemen, is fighting al Qaeda more important than fighting the insurgencies that you have in the north and the south?

AL-QIRBI: I would not really say it is more or less important. I think they are all important. We have to confront all the three challenges. I think our -- our fault was that maybe we should spare al Qaeda in the last year or -- because of the confrontation in the south in (inaudible) but al Qaeda took advantage of that.

And this is why they've tried to infiltrate, to establish some links with (inaudible) with El Harak (ph) in the south. And then they went even further to arrange for some suicidal attacks in Sana'a. And this is why it's always important that our security forces should take action against them.

AMANPOUR: So, Mr. Foreign Minister, if you're basically saying that you took your eye off the ball over the last year or so and al Qaeda has rushed into that vacuum, do you now accept U.S. direct intervention? Do you accept U.S. missile strikes, drone attacks? Will you accept U.S. troops in the fight against al Qaeda in Yemen?

AL-QIRBI: I think we've always stated that we welcome any support from our partners in -- in combating terrorism in Yemen and the region as a whole, but we think this is the priority and the responsibility of our security forces and the army and that what we need from the United States and other partners is, really, to build our capabilities, to provide us with the technical know-how, with the equipment, with the intelligence information, and with the firepower.

But apart from that, I think our military forces are able to conduct their actions against al Qaeda.

AMANPOUR: But what would happen if the U.S. wanted direct intervention? Would you accept that? Do you accept it?

AL-QIRBI: No, I don't think we will accept it. I think this -- I think the U.S., as well, have learned from Afghanistan and -- and Iraq and other places that -- that direct intervention can be -- can be self- defeating.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Foreign Minister, you've talked about needing U.S. help in various ways, including in assistance. The U.S. has now bumped up its assistance to Yemen from $40 million to just over $52 million in the last year. Is that enough?

AL-QIRBI: Not really. I think an increase of $12 million, when you compare it to the billions that are spent on the fight in Afghanistan and fighting terrorism in the United States, is really going to have very little effect. I think we need substantial assistance in both beefing up - - beefing up, really, the needs of our counterintelligence forces, as well as for development.


And development is a very important element, really, in producing results both as far as stabilizing Yemen and in countering terrorism.

AMANPOUR: Well, given the fact that Yemen does actually have such a weak infrastructure and such poverty right now, what can your country do? Because there's obviously been a huge amount of complaints about the corruption, about how aid is being taken and not delivered in the correct way and basically pocketed. What can your country do and your government do to assure the West that its money will be properly spent?

AL-QIRBI: I'm sorry, Christiane, that some of these reports really are backdated to three or four years ago. People haven't come back to Yemen and looked at the progress we have made in fighting corruption, the - - our national reform agenda that is being now implemented in the country. And progress has been made, really, confronting these challenges. More is needed.

I think the challenge we face now is really with our partners realizing that what Yemen needs is not really analysis, advice, but direct involvement and participation with Yemen in trying to resolve all these challenges of poverty, extremism, unemployment, education, health. This is what is going to need, really, to real progress in Yemen.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

AL-QIRBI: Thank you very much. Nice to be with you.

AMANPOUR: And when we return, what can the U.S. do about this threat? The State Department's ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism will join us.




ALI ABDULLAH SALEH, PRESIDENT OF YEMEN: We have been successful fighting and hunting down terrorists in spite of our humble financial resources. Yemen is safe and stable, and there's nothing to worry about.


AMANPOUR: Safe, stable, and nothing to worry about; that was Yemen's President Saleh four years ago. Joining me now for the American perspective, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, the State Department's Daniel Benjamin.

Thank you for joining us.


AMANPOUR: Safe, stable, nothing to worry about, that's the view from Yemen four years ago. And just now you heard the foreign minister say that the threat was exaggerated, that Yemen is not a safe haven. Do you agree?

BENJAMIN: Well, we are certainly glad for the partnership of the president of Yemen and his government. It's quite clear that we do have a serious al Qaeda problem in Yemen, and we are working with them to resolve it. But I would not say that we are where we want to be in Yemen right now.

AMANPOUR: Is there a lot to worry about? And do you categorize it as a safe haven?

BENJAMIN: Well, we don't categorize it exactly as a safe haven, because it is -- there is a functioning government there and it's -- it's by no means a failed state.


It is also true, though, that there are parts of Yemen that are undergoverned and that the radicals have exploited because they can evade government security forces. So, you know, there are real problems in terms of getting a handle on -- on the terrorist problem there.

AMANPOUR: So is there a new front opening for the United States? Is this now a new front in the war on -- on al Qaeda?

BENJAMIN: Christiane, it's important to recognize that we're absolutely not talking about a new front. In fact, this may be the very first front. If you go all the way back well before the Cole to not President Clinton's term, but in fact, the first President Bush's term, that was probably where the very first al Qaeda attack happened, in 1992, in December, when U.S. troops were in a hotel in Aden and they were coming and going from Somalia, where we were engaged at the time.

That attack was attributed to al Qaeda forces in Yemen. And we've been dealing with al Qaeda ever since. The threat has waxed and waned there. It's at a peak right now. But al Qaeda has always had a foothold in Yemen, and it's always been a concern. What's important is that we've been working very closely and much more effectively over the last few months, really, this year, with the Yemeni authorities, and we think we're making some headway.

AMANPOUR: So -- but you heard the Yemeni foreign minister say that, in fact, they in Yemen, quote, "took their eye off the ball," or, indeed, that's my quote. They said they tried to give -- spare al Qaeda, and al Qaeda took advantage of it. People are saying, also, the U.S., in fact, took its eye off the ball of Yemen. What has to be corrected? Because suddenly this seems to have come out of nowhere, as far as the public is concerned.

BENJAMIN: Well, as I mentioned before, the -- the threat has gone up and down in terms of its potency. Certainly, there were times in the past when the cooperation between the two governments was less than it might have been.

What I can tell you is that the Obama administration has been focused on Yemen since day one. My first day in the department when I was sworn in, the deputy secretary of state said to me, "These are some of the priorities you need to be looking at," and right at the top of the list was Yemen.

AMANPOUR: Is the U.S. strategy to use its firepower, whether it be drones, whatever it might be, in Yemen?

BENJAMIN: Our strategy is to build up the Yemeni capacity to deal with the threats within their own country, but also to deal with the very acute problems that Yemen is dealing with. It doesn't -- it doesn't do the job if you just give them the firepower. You really need to help them with the governance issues, with the development issues.

Your set-up piece noted accurately the very serious poverty that Yemen grapples with. That poverty translates into -- into difficulties in terms of governing the whole country and having the security services and the police that are needed to deal with terrorism. So we're really trying to address Yemen's problems across the board.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Benjamin, you heard the foreign minister say that a $12 million or so increase is not much comparatively. Are you going to do more? And are they a trustworthy partner for this financial and other aid?

BENJAMIN: We certainly are doing more. We see that our assistance for 2009 went up 56 percent over the year before, and the trajectory is going -- is going up considerably. The increases have been notable.

Look, obviously, Yemen has a lot of needs. We don't know what the final figure for the next budget will be, but I'm quite sure that Yemen is getting a lot more attention and a lot more of the resources.

It's important to underscore, too, that we're working with a lot of other partners on this. The gulf countries are very concerned, and there have been press reports about the UAE, for example, allocating more than $500 million to Yemen. We know the Saudis are concerned, the British are concerned. There is very much of an international effort going on to help Yemen with its problems, both on the governance and development side and, very specifically, in terms of training up their counterterrorism forces.

AMANPOUR: You've -- you've been following al Qaeda and this terrorist threat from way before you even entered the State Department. Since al Qaeda is being pushed out now from various different locations, what is the option? I mean, you keep pushing, and then it pops up somewhere else. What is the overall strategy? I mean, it's -- it's because the Saudis pushed them out in 2004-'05 that they've popped up in Yemen now, right?

BENJAMIN: Well, as I said before, they've been in Yemen all along. It is certainly true that the threat has grown because of the successes, frankly, of the Saudi counterterrorism efforts after the bombings there in 2003, and now there are a lot of Saudi militants in Yemen.

You know, dealing with terrorist groups is a little bit like trying to nail jelly to the wall. If they're not defending territory, then they will move around.


What we have to ensure is that, wherever they move, those countries have the capability to deal with the threat, that we can share the intel with them so that they can go after the terrorists wherever they may be, and that we can keep them from traveling with impunity. So it's -- it's a multi-dimensional challenge, and it's one that we're working on every day.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Benjamin, thank you for joining us from the State Department. A discussion to be continued. Thank you so much. And next...

BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: ... 10 years after the Cole bombing, what are the Yemeni and U.S. missteps? We talk to a preeminent expert on the region.



AMANPOUR: And we want to give you an update on some of the breaking news now. A grand jury in Michigan has indicted Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Eve alleged bomber, on six counts, including -- and we have the indictment right here -- the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction -- that is the bomb sewn into his underpants -- and the attempted murder of the rest of the 289 passengers aboard that Delta- Northwest airline.

I'm joined in the studio right now to give us some more perspective on all of this by Professor Bernard Haykel of Princeton University. He's a former adviser to the British and U.S. governments on Islamic affairs, and we welcome you to our studio.


AMANPOUR: You heard the indictment. You've heard from the Yemeni foreign minister earlier. What is the situation in Yemen? Is it a failed state? And can the Yemeni government get a grip on its al Qaeda problem?

HAYKEL: Well, it's a state that's teetering on -- on becoming a failed state, not quite Somalia yet, but I think that the government can take care of al Qaeda, if it were to focus its entire attention on al Qaeda. But it has a war, a rebellion in the north and a secession movement in the south, and lots of other problems to do with underdevelopment.

AMANPOUR: We want to look at this map here. This shows Yemen in perspective. It's got Saudi Arabia here to its north. And there's -- we've put a dotted line to indicate the porous border. Isn't part of the problem, as Ambassador Daniel Benjamin told us, that some -- it's like nailing Jell-O to the wall. You crush al Qaeda one place; it pops up somewhere else, and right now in Yemen.

HAYKEL: Yes, that's true. I mean, the resurgence of al Qaeda -- although it's always been present there since the early '90s -- the resurgence of late has to do with the fact that al Qaeda has been destroyed in Saudi Arabia and many of its members, the survivors, have moved into Yemen, from where they hope to use Yemen as a base to attack Saudi again.

Now, the -- the -- and it is a major problem for the region, primarily, that they're now there. But it is Saudi Arabia's problem. Yemen is Saudi Arabia's backyard. And it's the backyard of the GCC countries.

AMANPOUR: Let's put up some pictures, because, look, Yemen, Sana'a is, in fact, a beautiful place. Sana'a is a UNESCO world heritage site. And yet it is desperately poor. It has dwindling oil and even water supplies. And the Yemeni government seems to be asking not for intervention, but for help in development aid.

HAYKEL: Yes. It has always done this. The problem with the Yemeni government and its constant requests for aid is that one is never sure what that money is ultimately going to be used for. And in particular now, the worry is that they may not use it to attack al Qaeda or fight al Qaeda, but rather to deal with their domestic opponents both in the north and in the south.


AMANPOUR: And how -- we asked the foreign minister, and he admitted that they had, quote, "spared" al Qaeda as they had gone after those rebellions and secessionists.


AMANPOUR: Can they regain the initiative? And can the U.S. do it or -- or do you think the U.S. shouldn't?

HAYKEL: I definitely think the U.S. should not get involved in this - - in this fight, because any involvement of the U.S. indirectly is going to fit in with al Qaeda's narrative. It is really a problem that I think should be solved by the region.

However, the story with al Qaeda in Yemen is a sinister one, because the government in Yemen has in the past used al Qaeda against its domestic opponents. So it's not a straightforward, you know, story where al Qaeda is a real threat to the regime. It has been -- it has been used by the regime in the past.

AMANPOUR: Now, as we continue to talk about a long-term solution to this, a lot of people are talking about development. And, indeed, today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has talked about a new mindset that's needed. She's talking about long-term endeavors. And she's saying that perhaps we must re-evaluate our progress and, quote, "have the courage to re-think our strategies if we're falling short." Do you think the United States is going to re-think this whole nation-building?

HAYKEL: Well, certainly, I mean, after the fiasco in Iraq, it's, I hope, not considering opening up a new front in -- in Yemen, because that - - Yemen is a lot like Afghanistan and perhaps even worse. And you have to remember that the Egyptians tried to take over Yemen and control it in the 1960s and failed miserably. It was their Vietnam. And it's certainly something that the United States should not get involved in.

AMANPOUR: So if you had 30 seconds to say exactly what should be done, what should be done now?

HAYKEL: A regional solution to the problems of Yemen. The region -- and particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the emirates -- must get involved, mediate the internal disputes with the northerners and the southerners, and then concentrate on development and on destroying al Qaeda.

AMANPOUR: Professor Haykel, thank you so much, indeed, for joining us.

HAYKEL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And we will welcome you back hopefully to -- to continue this discussion.

HAYKEL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: We've been taking questions from our Facebook and Twitter pages on this issue, so go to our Web site,, where Professor Haykel, as I said, will give us more answers in an after-show webcast.

And that's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a look at an unusual source of additional conflict around the world, including in Yemen. That's water and the growing shortage. So please join us. For now, goodbye from New York.