The new HQ for terror is Yemen...
The president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is billed as a key US ally in what the Bush administration called the “war on terror”, though there has been exasperation among western governments at how this support has sometimes manifested itself.
In 2006, 23 extremists were able to tunnel their way out of prison amid reports of collusion between officials and militants. The result is that Al-Qaeda is now back in Yemen in significant numbers and the organisation is flourishing in a society already overwhelmed with myriad crushing social and security problems.
A large proportion of the population are, by western standards, drug addicts. A World Bank report in 2007 suggested that nearly three-quarters of Yemeni men and a third of women chew khat, a leaf that has an effect similar to amphetamines. This adds to the instability.
Into this morass has waded Al-Qaeda. Of particular concern to western intelligence agencies is the composition of the group’s leadership in Yemen.
Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi national, spent six years as prisoner number 372 at the US-run Guantanamo detention centre in Cuba after being captured on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in December 2001.
In December 2007, however, he was released into the custody of the Saudi government’s “deradicalisation” programme for terrorists, which offered psychological counselling, classes in more moderate forms of Islam, art therapy and playing sport and video games. The Saudis boasted that the programme had an 80% success rate.
Some 3,000 prisoners have gone through the programme since 2003, and such was the faith in the project that it has been visited by a number of world leaders, including Gordon Brown, who lauded its principles during a visit to the kingdom.
But according to US sources, al-Shihri spent just six to 10 weeks at the rehabilitation facility.
Within days of his release in early 2008, he is believed to have crossed the border into Yemen and began putting into place the building blocks for a new organisation, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for the botched suicide bomb attack on a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day.
By September 2008, al-Shihri had hooked up with two notorious terrorists who had escaped from Yemeni jails. Nasir al-Wahayshi was a former secretary to Osama Bin Laden, and Jamal Muhammad Ahmad al-Badawi was the convicted mastermind of the USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors off Yemen in October 2000.
By early last year the group had gained notoriety by orchestrating the kidnap and murder of at least six foreigners in Yemen and was suspected of co-ordinating a failed bombing of the US embassy in Sana’a.
Their ranks had also been swelled by at least three other former Guantanamo detainees.
Last week Pentagon sources admitted that 61 former prisoners at the camp, 12% of the 510 released, have returned to the battlefield.
According to public records, six Yemenis were sent home from Guantanamo in December, and lawyers acting for the detainees say about 35 more have been cleared for release by an administration task force.
While Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made headlines at Christmas with its attempted bombing, it has been steadily building its capabilities. Recently it opened a training camp in the south of the country, which is believed to be based in the Al Jaza area in the district of Mudiyah in the southern province of Abyan. It houses more than 400 fighters, of whom Yemenis, Saudis and Somalis make up the majority.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, believes Yemen has now become the third-largest haven for Al-Qaeda, and the group there is perhaps the most stable when compared with units in Iraq and south Asia.