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Fears Of Al-Qaida Inroads In Yemen

Authorities say 11 men arrested last month near the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen planned to attack security officials and stage robberies to raise money. Saudi Arabia has cracked down on militants in recent years, but weak and impoverished Yemen has done little by comparison.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Last month, in the border area between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Saudi authorities arrested 11 suspected members of al-Qaida. They had been stockpiling weapons in a cave. Saudi Arabia has been cracking down on militants but Yemen has done little by comparison.

As Kelly McEvers reports from Yemen's capital, San'a, many fear al-Qaida will use Yemen as a home base to launch new attacks.

KELLY McEVERS: Al-Qaida here is mainly a regional organization. The group calls itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and boasts members from both Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. NASIR AL-WUHAYSHI (Leader, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula): (Speaking foreign language)

McEVERS: The group is led by this man, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni in his 30s who once worked as a personal secretary to Osama bin Laden. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Wuhayshi fled to Iran where he was caught and extradited back here to Yemen. He escaped from Yemeni prison with 22 other men in early 2006.

Mr. AL-WUHAYSHI: (Speaking foreign language)

McEVERS: In this speech, recorded earlier this year, Wuhayshi is seeking unity with Yemen's heavily armed and largely ungoverned tribes, especially those who live near the Yemen-Saudi border.

Yemeni reporter Abdulela al-Shaya recently met Wuhayshi at one of al-Qaida's mountain redoubts.

What was he like?

Mr. ABDULELA AL-SHAYA (Reporter): Polite. He's more polite...

McEVERS: During the interview, al-Shaya says Wuhayshi refrained from calling Yemeni officials infidels. Instead, he called them inept and corrupt.

Mr. AL-SHAYA: (Through translator) That is a strong point that many Yemenis would agree with.

McEVERS: Wuhayshi also bragged that al-Qaida has managed to infiltrate some branches of Yemen's security forces. Week's later, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for an attack on foreign tourists. In that attack, a militant approached four South Koreans and asked to take a photo with them. He then set off a suicide belt, killing himself, the tourists and their Yemeni guide. Days after that, another suicide bomber struck a convoy here in the Yemeni capital, that included relatives of the Korean victims and a team of investigators. The bomber appeared to have prior knowledge of the convoy.

(Soundbite of traffic)

The attacker waited for the convoy here on the main road to the airport. As the convoy passed, he detonated his belt, but apparently, he wasn't close enough to his target. The bomber died, but no one else in the convoy was hurt.

Yemeni writer Nasir Arabiyah(ph) says the attack showed that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is becoming more bold.

Mr. NASIR ARABIYAH (Writer): They also frighten the Americans from any, anything and from any hope. A lot of Americans say, oh, there's no hope any more now.

McEVERS: The American hope he refers to was that the Yemeni government would combat al-Qaida on its own, and that the U.S. would be able to send the nearly 100 Yemenis currently detained at Guantanamo Bay back here for rehabilitation. Now, Arabiyah says, the prospects for that seem less and less likely.

Mr. ARABIYAH: Well, I think there is some other priorities for the government, like the security, economic and other things.

McEVERS: Not only is Yemen's economy failing, as oil revenues drop and the oil itself runs out, but a separatist movement in the south of the country has grown violent in recent days. Demonstrations and armed skirmishes have left at least eight people dead and dozens injured. Western analysts say the government's inability to deal with all these problems, plus growing sympathy for al-Qaida among some locals might mean that Yemen in this decade becomes what Afghanistan was in the 1990s.

Again, Abdulela al-Shaya.

Mr. AL-SAHYA: (Through translator) For now, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is just a regional threat. But with all the instability here, it could become a global threat.

McEVERS: For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Sana'a, Yemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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