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Terrorism training in Yemen

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Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 28, 2009; 2:00 PM

The al-Qaeda branch linked to the attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight has for the past year escalated efforts to exploit Yemen's instability and carve out a leadership role among terrorist groups, say Yemeni and Western officials, terrorism analysts, and tribal leaders.

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Washington Post foreign correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan was online from Yemen on Monday, Dec. 28, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the significant increase in the activities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi everyone,

Greetings from Sana'a, Yemen. This Middle Eastern country, the region's poorest, has found itself, once again, in the spotlight in the global war on terror, as you all are aware. I'll try my best to answer your wonderful questions.

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Harrisburg. Pa.: How certain are we that the recent attempts by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to start a fire in a plane was not the work of a lone attacker? Hasn't it been the al-Qaeda method to send multiple, often four, attackers at the same time in the expectation that three in four tend to be stopped beforehand? If this was an al-Qaeda attack, where were the other attackers? Were they stopped? Or, does the signal that al-Qaeda is changing its tactics?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Thanks Harrisburg. This is a great way to kick off our discussion. You've asked the $100 million dollar question. Al Qaeda and its progeny have had a long history of finding weaknesses in security measures -- and then finding new tactics to stage surprise attacks. They uses an explosives-laden speedboat to bomb the USS Cole in 2000; militants masquerading as journalists killed Ahmed Shah Masood, the Afghan rebel leader. So it wouldn't surprise me is Al Qaeda sent one person to bomb an airliner. Of course, at this moment we don't know for certain whether Abdulmutallab has links to Al Qaeda. That's what investigators on three continents are trying to figure out as we speak.

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Vienna, Va.: Is there any way the U.S. can provide support to Yemeni officials and get rid of the terrorist foothold there without harming chances in Iraq and/or Afghanistan?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Vienna,

great question. The American effort, so far, in Yemen is paltry compared to Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. has provided $70 million in military aid this year, mostly for training and intelligence. In the past two weeks, the US has provided significant assistance to the Yemeni government to launch air strikes and raids on suspected Al Qaeda militants. But hardly anyone believes that such aggressive tactics alone will get rid of Yemen's terrorism problem. There needs to be long tern development and economic aid, most analysts say. This is the poorest country in the Middle East. The economy is crumbling, unemployment is high, oil resources are shrinking. All this helps create a perfect breeding ground for extremists. Yemen certainly needs more attention.

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Sudarsan Raghavan: Breaking News folks. CNN is reporting that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attempt to blow up the Northwest Flight.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, What does the Yemeni media have to say about the recent bombing attempt on NWA?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi DC,

Absolutely nothing. There has been no reports in the Yemeni media. They are more focused on a civil war in the north. The Yemeni government has also been tight lipped about the bombing attempt.

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washingtonpost.com: Sudarsan is having technical difficulties with the Internet there in Yemen. He is working on the problem and hopes to get back on. Please stay with us. Thank you.

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washingtonpost.com: Al-Qaida in Yemen claims attack on US airliner (AP, Dec. 28)

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Rockville, Md.: Is al-Qaeda really a single entity with an organizational structure or [is]it more a convenient name used collectively to describe a bunch of different groups, like "the Mafia."

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Rockville,

There are many extremist groups who derive inspiration from Al Qaeda's philosophies, but are not necessary part of the AQ central body. For example, AL Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while it has contacts with Osama Bin Laden's group in Afghanistan, it largely operates independently.

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Washington, D.C.: So, how do we surmise that AQ operates in Yemen...rural training centers, urban hideouts in Sanaa? Can't AQ do a lot in virtual mode from any place? I see AQ more as a diffuse movement than an actual organization, am I wrong on that?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi DC,

In Yemen, AQ is very organized. They have an online magazine, regularly beams videos and other communiqu├ęs on jihadist sites and forums. They have training camps -- one alleged camp was targeted two weeks ago in Yemen's southern province of Abyan.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What are the particular (political and other) motivations for the Yemeni al-Qaeda faction? Are they the same as the stated complaints of bin Laden -- Israeli treatment of Palestinians, western forces near sacred sites in the Middle East and (I believe) foreign countries exploiting the resources of Arab countries? Do we even know why our enemy is attacking us? That would seem like the first step in resolving a conflict, no?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Silver Spring,

good question. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's main motivations is to use Yemen as a launch pad for global jihad, especially targeting Saudi Arabia, Israel and especially the United States -- anyone they believe attacks Muslims and Islam. Over the past year the branch has increased its aggressiveness and ambition, attacking high profile targets. Now that it has claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing attempt, it hopes to elevate itself into a leadership role among global terrorist groups.

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Boston, Mass.: What are the U.S. official anti-terror assets in Yemen and what are the other rumored "unofficial" U.S. assets in country?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Boston,

Officially, US officials say they provide intelligence "and other assistance" to Yemen's fight against terrorism. In the two most recent air strikes, many Yemenis believe U.S. fighter jets and missiles were used. But both the US and the Yemeni government deny this.

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Washington, D.C.: Having served in Yemen in 2004, I found an archaic Political Security Organization full of al-Qaeda sympathizers and a nascent National Security Bureau trying to find a role for itself in the face of PSO obstacles. Is PSO really trying to stop this al-Qaeda spurt? If not, has the U.S. been able to empower the NSB to lead the fight?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi DC,

a hard question to answer. The Yemeni government says it has done its best to clean up the Al Qaeda sympathizers from the PSO. But there are still many who work there, according to my sources. The NSB is seen as more efficient, neutral and willing to take on Al Qaeda.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi -- thanks for taking questions. I have to say I am very disconcerted that this attempt seemed so close to success. To that extent, this terroristic threat has achieved some measure of success on me -- now I'm afraid again. Can you explain what connection the would-be bomber had in Yemen? Is there any idea why he chose to route through Schipol? Thanks!

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi St Paul,

All we know so far is that he spent time in Yemen, including a couple months this year. Hopefully, we will learn about his time in Yemen in the next couple days. I have no idea why he went through Amsterdam.

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Fairfax, Va.: Yemen was one of the few states to support Iraq in the Persian Gulf War and many Yemenis joined al-Qaeda. This might indicate that the U.S. has little chance of winning the support of either the Yemeni regime or its people. The weak, corrupt central government might take our money and training; but, can we trust it as an ally? The Yemeni people are tribal, insular and very conservative. How can we truly win their support -- or tolerance?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Fairfax,

You are absolutely correct. The United States faces a major uphill battle in winning the support of Yemenis. Most analysts believe that the US needs to increase development and economic aid to ease some of its core obstacles of poverty, high unemployment, illiteracy to prevent it from becoming a larger breeding ground for terrorism.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: Yemen isn't considered to be so poor by its neighbors. In fact, tens of thousands of Somalis migrate there illegally each year. If you go to the coast, you can see Africa across the strait.

So if the growth of terrorism is dependent on lawless regions of stark poverty, they've got plenty of room for expansion just 15 miles away on the unknown vastness of Africa.

Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi Colorado Springs,

Actually, many Somalis view Yemen as a transit point. Their ultimate goal is to go to Saudi Arabia.

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Sudarsan Raghavan: thanks everyone,

I have to do some reporting.

Happy Holidays and all the best wishes for the New Year.

cheers,

Sudarsan

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