Yemen, the new terrorism front

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Yemen has become a hotbed of radical Islamic militant activity. Many of Osama bin Laden's former associates now live there. Anchor Marco Werman finds out more from Sudarsan Raghavan, Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, who's in Yemen and met bin Laden's former personal bodyguard.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH/Boston. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was indicted today on six counts for trying to blow up an American airliner. Abdulmutallab failed in his attempt as the plane was about to land in Detroit on Christmas Day. The incident has focused new U.S. attention on Yemen. That's where the would-be bomber says he got his explosives and training. But Yemen was already in the sights of American counter-terrorism officials. The country to the south of Saudi Arabia is considered a hotbed of radical Islamic militant activity. And a number of former associates of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden currently live in Yemen. Washington Post correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan is in the capital Sanaa. He recently met a man in Yemen who used to be Bin Laden's personal bodyguard. Raghavan explains how that man entered Al-Qaeda's inner circle.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: He was born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents and he essentially got radicalized in Saudi Arabia, and he was also very much influenced by the Palestinian struggles against Israel in the 1980s and early '90s. And that convinced him that he should go to Bosnia first to fight Jihad there. And then he went to Somalia, then Tajikistan, and he finally went and lived in Afghanistan where in '96 he met Osama Bin Laden.

WERMAN: What exactly was his role in Al-Qaeda? I mean, aside from being Osama Bin Laden's personal bodyguard for some time, what else was he doing?

RAGHAVAN: Well, he did fight a bit. You know, he was fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. The Afghan rebels who were trying to overthrow the Taliban. He also ran sort of a public relations thing for Al-Qaeda. He ran this kind of guest house where new recruits would come and he would get the recruits. He had a bit larger role than just being a bodyguard, and what people told me his main role was to basically protect Bin Laden. Bin Laden really trusted him.

WERMAN: And what is Al-Bahri [PH] doing now?

RAGHAVAN: He's sort of a business consultant. He works, you know, for small businesses. That's basically it, and he does do a little bit of this sort of trying to influence the young Yeminese into perhaps not entering Jihad. But his main focus, you know, he's like every other Yemeni. He's basically, you know, from what I understand he just finally, he got a living.

WERMAN: You describe a situation where Al-Bahri was shot in the leg and then nursed back to health by Osama Bin Laden himself. Does he still have any current connection with Al-Qaeda or Bin Laden?

RAGHAVAN: Well, he says he doesn't and I do believe him. He was in Yemen when the U.S.S. Cole was attacked killing 17 American sailors back in 2000. And he said he was just there on a visit, but he ended up being picked up by the Yemeni Intelligence and put in jail because of his connections. And there, FBI agents actually interrogated him after the September 11th attacks. And according to the FBI agents, he divulged a great amount of information about Osama Bin Laden, about Al-Qaeda's leadership and structure. So now he sees himself basically as possibly his own life might be at risk from Al-Qaeda. So he does say that he has no contacts with Osama Bin Laden or with Al-Qaeda, and from people I've spoken to who know him it seems pretty true.

WERMAN: It's interesting that post-9/11 FBI interrogation because you met with Al-Bahri just a day or two before the Christmas Day attempted bombing of that airliner going from Amsterdam to Detroit. I'm just wondering what you think Nasser Al-Bahri's story can tell us about the Nigerian man who allegedly tried to pull off that bombing?

RAGHAVAN: Well, I think what it does show is why Yemen is an attractive place for the young impressionable would-be Jihadists like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. There are thousands of men like Al-Bahri, who fought in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they returned to Yemen. They're not fighting any more, but they have sympathies to Al-Qaeda still. In such a climate it's very easy for someone like Abdulmutallab to meet the right people, to meet the right contacts who can then put in with Al-Qaeda militants who are planning an operation against the United States.

WERMAN: And Sudarsan, I mean you're there in the capital Sanaa. I'd just be curious to know what your impressions are of this place that's under such a klieg light at the moment.

RAGHAVAN: Right. Sanaa is actually, you know, I found it quite safe. I've been able to move around quite a bit. The Yemenis have been very friendly here. It is a place that is under heavy security, but it was like that even before the Christmas Day attempted bombing. There's been, you know, just last year the U.S. Embassy here was attacked with a car bomb and the armed gunmen. So it's a very deceptive city. From first glance it looks very normal. It's a bustling Arab city and lots of taxis, honking horns, but when you step back a bit, you realize how dangerous the city could be. How if you happen to be somewhere at the wrong place at the wrong time, something can blow up, somebody can get kidnapped. I mean, there's been plenty of examples of such incidences in the past few years.

WERMAN: Sudarsan Raghavan is Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post. He spoke with us from Sanaa, Yemen. Thank you very much for your time, Sudarsan.

RAGHAVAN: My pleasure.