Al-Qaida Claims It's Involved In Yemeni Battles

Originally published on June 2, 2011 7:38 am
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Steve Inskeep. He's on assignment in Pakistan.


I'm Renee Montagne.

And in Yemen, government troops and a chaotic collection of opposition groups are battling in the capital, Sana'a. The fighting has grown out of months of escalating protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Arabia's poorest country for more than 30 years. Yemen now appears on the verge of civil war. Just who is fighting whom, though, is often unclear.

For some background, we turned to Les Campbell. He heads the Middle East and North Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute here in Washington.

Thank you for coming in.

Mr. LES CAMPBELL (National Democratic Institute): It's a pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Over the weekend it was reported that al-Qaida had taken over the coastal town of Zinjibar, which really grabbed people because the big fear in the West is that Yemen will become a full stop base for al-Qaida. What about it though here - were these armed gunmen really al-Qaida?

Mr. CAMPBELL: It depends on who you talk to. If you - certainly President Saleh has said straight out that this is al-Qaida. The opposition political parties have said they're imposters. They are Saleh supporters dressed as al-Qaida. Although I'm not sure exactly what al-Qaida dresses like in Yemen. You know, any differently than any Yemen might - Yemeni might dress. More objective analysts have told me, yes, the town has been taken over but by more, I guess, normal militants in Yemen, and not al-Qaida. The truth probably is somewhere between all of those things.

MONTAGNE: Who are these militants, the separatists?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, unfortunately in a place like Yemen you could probably describe a lot of people as militants. There are tribal fighters. Right now there is a pitched battle in the capital between the supporters of the president, a number of people that are part of the government - they're fighting against the largest tribal federal, the Hashid tribal federation, so some of these tribesmen certainly are militants in the sense that they're armed and they're fighting.

In the south, where Zinjibar is, there has been a longstanding secessionist movement. There are a number of people who have taken up weapons. And then in Yemen you have the longstanding inability of the government to impose order. So you have other forces, they're Yemeni, but they have very local affiliations. They have carried out different kinds of attacks or kidnappings to try to leverage resources from the government. And then finally you have what I would describe as al-Qaida, and by al-Qaida I mean people who are probably - they maybe Yemeni but they answer maybe to a foreign command. So they're many types of militants. I think the ones that we need fear the most are the al-Qaida types which train their attention outside Yemen primarily.

MONTAGNE: How serious is that threat? It's something that President Saleh has played, a fear that he has played on for years to keep the backing of the U.S. and the West.

Mr. CAMPBELL: President Saleh has, I think, skillfully put himself in a position where he has had much of the international community convinced that in fact he's a bulwark against in some sense is the forces of medievalism, whether they be al-Qaida or the tribal forces. I think that that narrative has broken down in the sense that the chaos, the fighting, the conflict is as much a part of President Saleh's rule right now as it is of the tribes.

Having said that, any failed state - and there is the specter of a failed state in Yemen - leaves a vacuum where al-Qaida can thrive. The question to me is what the response is now to the conflict. If the response to conflict is to strengthen President Saleh's hand, to strengthen the hand of those who are using force, including arms that are supplied by the international community against the Yemeni people in the spirit supposedly of fighting terrorism, it's just going to make the problem worse.

MONTAGNE: Hasn't the U.S., though, cut off the arms that it's been heretofore sending and supplying Yemen with, given that it has withdrawn political support for President Saleh?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes. The U.S. has cut off that flow of arms which was to be used to fight terrorism. But Yemenis believe very strongly that weapons that have been supplied to President Saleh as part of fighting terrorism are being turned on Yemeni people. As difficult as it is to do, there has to be a political solution. The only way to rule Yemen is to find a way to draw all these disparate pieces into a body, probably a type of parliament. That's not easy. But if the response right now to Yemen is to simply not engage and to look at a military response, whether it be by drones or missiles or something else, then we'll be dealing with Yemen as a possible place that's open to terrorists for many, many years to come.

MONTAGNE: Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. CAMPBELL: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.