Yemen Employs New Terror Approach
Wednesday, July 4, 2007; 1:35 PM
SANA'A, Yemen -- Yemen is pioneering a novel approach for dealing with convicted al-Qaida operatives: Let them roam free as long as they promise to be law-abiding.
For example, Ali Mohammed al-Kurdi says he sent two suicide bombers to Iraq and trained others. He was sentenced to death for his part in a hotel bombing in Yemen's port city of Aden, escaped and was re-arrested.
Fawzi al-Wajeh, a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden's, was convicted in the 2002 bombing of a French oil tanker and was one of 23 al-Qaida men to escape from a Yemeni high security prison last year. He later surrendered.
Naseer Ahmed al-Bahri, another bin Laden bodyguard, fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Somalia. He was jailed for nearly two years without charge after returning from Afghanistan.
All three continue to idolize bin Laden and they back jihad, or holy war, against U.S. forces, whether it's in the Middle East or Afghanistan. Yet they are now back on the streets because they signed an agreement with the Yemeni government promising to obey the law.
Yemen's policy of negotiating agreements with al-Qaida operatives appears to be unique among the nations working with the United States in its anti-terror campaign. Breaking the agreement means returning to prison or causing a relative, who often acts as a guarantor, to be jailed to finish out the sentence.
Authorities do not ask Islamic extremists to forsake their sympathies or apologize for acts of terror. "The West looks at Sheik Osama as a terrorist, but for us he is a saint," al-Bahri said.
The three men said they promised the government they would obey the law, not stage attacks in Yemen or use Yemen to plot attacks elsewhere. In exchange they were freed, given money, jobs or even an arranged marriage, Interior Minister Rashad Al-Alimi said in an interview.
Yemeni officials defend the program as a practical solution in their country, the ancestral homeland of the bin Laden family where Islamic extremism is common. There are more men from Yemen held at Guantanamo Bay than from any other country.
"We are one of the first countries which had a problem with al-Qaida that has set up a committee for dialogue with these people," said Al-Alimi. The government committee conducting the talks seeks to moderate extreme views, he said.
Mohammed Ali Abulahoum, head of the ruling party's Foreign Relations department, said "most of the time it is successful. In Yemen we have two options: Either we contain them or we fight them. Fighting doesn't work in the longer term. It just doesn't."
But Gregory Johnsen, an analyst for the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation research group, says the program is a failure that is simply a "tacit nonaggression pacts with Islamists."