Fighting terrorism in Yemen

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The US and Yemen share an interest in stamping out the Yemen-based group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been blamed for the attempt to blow up flight 253 to Detroit on Christmas Day. So Washington has ramped up counter-terrorism aid to the Yemeni government. Jeb Sharp talks with the BBC's Jonathan Head, who is currently in Sana'a.

JEB SHARP: The United States and Yemen share an interest in stamping out the Yemen based group Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula so the US has ramped up counter terrorism aid to the Yemeni government. Americans are helping to train and fund special units to combat
Al Qaida's offshoot in Yemen, but assisting the government in Sana'a carries some risk. The BBC's Jonathan Head is in Sana'a. Jonathan, several western embassies are closed in the capital there including the US embassy. How tense is security there in the capital?

JONATHAN HEAD: It's a lot more tense than usual and it's always tense here. This is a very weak and vulnerable country, which has had a lot of security problems for a long time now. Closing down is nothing new for the embassies here. Remember the US embassy suffered a full-scale assault by an armed gang, an Al Qaida gang just 15 months ago in which 19 people died. The British embassy told us today that they'd closed down 30 times in the last few years. You know this is something that's not new but they're aware the threat is particularly high at the moment. Al Qaida has made specific threats towards embassy staff, and the Yemeni authorities are saying that although they intercepted an Al Qaida cell last month, they didn't get everyone. They had another attempt today, killed two militants but another leader got away and they believe that a number of trucks laden with explosives that were planned to be used in an attack, possibly on the British embassy, have gone missing. They have actually lost track of them. So for all those reasons there are very good grounds for the embassies to believe that the risk of an attack is much higher than before.

JEB: Now you are talking about a government that's known to be relatively friendly to the west but just how stable is the government? How would you characterize it?

JONATHAN: It's very unstable. And also its friendliness to the west needs to be qualified really. It's a government in a deeply conservative and tribal society. A very fragmented country which has survived in the past largely by playing one tribe off against the other or buying them off with Yemen's now fast diminishing oil wealth. President [PH] Salay who has been in office in Sana'a anyway since 1978 is a past master of this, but he's losing the game. He's getting old as well. He's got a rebellion in the north, a growing secessionist movement in the south and is accused of corruption and also some other abuses. So for all those reasons he's a difficult government to work with. Now he has played along very much with the campaign against Al Qaida but it's been intermittent. And indeed in the past he has done deals with extreme Islamists to help him stay in power. It's a very fluid and volatile situation. It's not an easy one for outsiders to come in and get a quick result and I think the options for the US to improve the campaign against Al Qaida are not that good.

JEB: What is the US role there and how is it changing?

JONATHAN: It's a covert role and it has to be. It's worth remembering that you know we're not very far from Mecca here, we're next door to Saudi Arabia, this is in many ways the cradle of some of the most conservative and fundamentalist forms of Islam. There are very strong veins of anti-American feeling in the population even though only a very small minority are actually violent jihadists. And so any overt American presence would simply not be tolerated. Now the US focus is very much on security at the moment but the point has been made by the government here and by other governments that the British government that you have to focus on more than that. This is a chronically poor country. And its poverty is growing by the year. Its population is rising fast, it's running out of oil, it's running out of water. About half the population lives at subsistence levels and it's getting worse. That needs to be reversed if the breeding ground for Al Qaida type militants isn't to spread.

JEB: Has that conversation begun? I mean is the United States, is the US attention going to civil aid programs for instance such as education, women's empowerment, anything like that?

JONATHAN: There's been a persistent interest in aid here for a lot of years. There have been a lot of aid programs but they're not at the levels that you see in some other countries. And there are problems. A lot of the country is very insecure. It's very difficult for agencies to work here. Some of them say it's actually worse than Afghanistan. This country is absolutely awash with guns it's said, up to three for every one person here. So even the development options aren't that easy.

JEB: And even when the government does order its security forces to do something, can those forces be relied on to carry it out? How loyal is the army given all the currents you've described?

JONATHAN: It's loyal at the moment to the President. But that may not last as he gets older and as different factions close to him start jockeying for power after he goes. A lot of it looks pretty ramshackle, to be honest. They're quite a scary bunch when you run into the checkpoints, they're just not like anyone who walked off the street and just happened to be carrying a big gun. But there are specialist units who have received a lot of western training and they're quite effective. I think the bigger problem is not that they can't go after Al Qaida but the Al Qaida cells are small and mobile. They've blended into the population in many parts of Yemen. They even get the support of some tribal leaders who simply, you know they paid them off or they offer them something they need. And it's not easy to contain them. But I think that's the best option, the best hope for western governments is that by focusing the Yemeni government, by giving them enough support in the right places, they can make life difficult enough for the Al Qaida operation here to reduce the chances of another plot like the one we saw over Detroit on Christmas Day.

JEB: Jonathan we're talking about a place many of us have never visited. Can you give us any more of a feel of Yemen itself? What it's like to be there, what it's like to visit, perhaps apart from all of the issues we've been discussing?

JONATHAN: Well this is old Arabia. The capital here is a world heritage society, it is a lovely place to visit. This feels like an Arabia that's perhaps 50 years ago. These wonderful mud brick tall tower houses with ornate carvings on the outside of them and narrow passages and alleyways with an incredible market selling an array of goods. And I have to say in Sana'a itself an incredibly welcoming atmosphere. I mean they, really it's old-fashioned Arab hospitality. Whatever people's political views they desperately wish that tourists would come here and of course the tourist trade is completely dried up. You know it's in many ways a very charming place but it's incredibly traditional, every woman is completely covered apart from her eyes, and the health indicators and education indicators, all those classic measures of development are very low indeed and you see it in the people. There's also a kind of air of almost of apathy in the afternoons because almost everybody here is chewing the local mild narcotic leaf called cat which is also chewed in Somalia, so not an awful lot gets done either. It can be very charming. But it is a country that is clearly in need of a huge amount of help.

JEB: The BBC's Jonathan Head speaking to us from Sana'a, Yemen. Thank you so much.

JONATHAN: My pleasure.