By Sudarsan Raghavan and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010; A04
SANAA, YEMEN -- Yemen's president vowed over the weekend to track down al-Qaeda militants who refuse to renounce terrorism, as President Obama affirmed in a magazine interview that he has no plans at the moment to send troops to Yemen in response to concerns that the terrorist network's presence has become more dangerous in that country.
The comments by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime ruler who has been accused of vacillating about his country's Islamic extremists, underscored a growing sense in Yemen that his government could be imperiled if stronger actions are not taken. But Saleh also told Abu Dhabi TV that "we are ready to talk with any person who gives up violence and terrorism," extending an olive branch to extremists in keeping with political resentment in the country over close ties to Washington.
"Dialogue is the best way" even with al-Qaeda, Saleh said. But if al-Qaeda continues "sabotage and terrorist acts," he said, his government is "determined to stand up to the challenges."
Saleh's willingness to enter discussions with al-Qaeda came a day after Yemen's most influential cleric, Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, railed against what he branded as American pressure on Yemen to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate that has claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bomb plot on Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Zindani, whom the United States has characterized as a terrorist for his alleged ties to al-Qaeda, also charged that Washington and the United Nations wanted to "impose an international occupation of Yemen."
Saleh's comments made it clear that he would deal with al-Qaeda on his own terms, even as the Obama administration is boosting overall aid and doubling its counterterrorism funding for the country. The Yemeni government has been fragmented by insurgencies and is beset by popular frustration. But Yemeni officials in recent days have bluntly said they do not want American troops on their soil, fearing that such a deployment would only generate more support for al-Qaeda.
Obama's remarks on Friday to People magazine, released in part on Sunday in advance of publication next week, appeared designed in part to soothe those concerns. Obama said, "We've known throughout this year that al-Qaeda in Yemen has become a more serious problem." He said that "the same is true in Somalia, another country where there are large chunks that are not fully under government control and al-Qaeda is trying to take advantage of them."
The president said that while he never ruled out any possibilities, he has "no intention of sending U.S. boots on the ground in those regions" while the local governments remain effective partners.
Alluding to local resistance likely to meet any U.S. military presence, Obama said Washington must consider "how we project ourselves to the world, the message we send to Muslim communities . . . the overwhelming majority of which reject al-Qaeda but where a handful of individuals may be moved by a jihadist ideology." Obama said he favors a "larger process of winning over the hearts and minds of ordinary people and isolating these violent extremists."
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has the support of many powerful, well-armed tribes, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the country, which dislike any interference by the central government on their lands. There are vast stretches of ungoverned areas where the government has little or no authority whatsoever.
"The problem the president faces is that his power is getting weaker," said Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of political science at Sanaa University. "I do agree with him that U.S. involvement in terms of troops and air strikes is not going to help him. But at the same time, I don't see how he can get anything done without a partnership with the United States."
Saleh has had a long history of striking deals with Islamic militants. He deployed them against the southern secessionists in a brief 1994 civil war, and many analysts say he is currently deploying them against Shiite rebels in the north.
Despite U.S. complaints, the government has also freed key al-Qaeda figures after they promised not to engage in terrorism. They included Jamal al-Badawi, who helped orchestrate the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. Yemen has refused to extradite him to the United States, citing Yemen's constitution, which prohibits its citizens' extradition.
Hundreds of suspected militants have been processed through a rehabilitation program, then released. The program is now widely seen in the West as a failure, but top Yemeni officials continue to call it a success. Among those set free was Fahd al-Quso, who was sentenced by Yemen to 10 years in prison for his role in the Cole bombing. Today, he is active again in al-Qaeda, say analysts and Yemeni officials.
Prosecutors have blamed the attempted Christmas Day bombing on a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who they say previously spent time with al-Qaeda operatives based in Yemen. Obama last week suspended the repatriation of any of the nearly 100 Yemeni prisoners remaining at the U.S. military's Guantanamo prison.
Obama told People magazine that "I do think it's important to recognize that the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the epicenter of al-Qaeda, their leadership, and their extremist allies."
Smith reported from Washington.