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Yemen to revamp visa procedures in wake of failed Christmas Day airliner bombing

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Yemen is changing its visa procedures as a result of the Dec. 25 airline bombing attempt in the United States and will require entry permits to be issued at its embassies abroad rather than granting them on arrival in Yemen, Foreign Minister Abubaker al-Qirbi said Wednesday.

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His government has also asked all Arabic-language institutes in Yemen to provide information on foreign students, Qirbi said. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with attempting to detonate a bomb aboard the Amsterdam-Detroit flight last month, was a student at such a school in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, before he allegedly joined the al-Qaeda affiliate there last fall.

In a wide-ranging interview at the end of a three-day visit here, Qirbi said that counterterrorism cooperation with the United States had improved under the Obama administration, but that U.S. intelligence was still not sharing enough of the kind of information that could prevent attacks like the Christmas Day attempt, which failed because the bomb malfunctioned.

Although Abdulmutallab's father had told the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son was associating with extremists in Yemen, that information was not transmitted to Yemeni security officials. Qirbi said his government had not yet received any information about up to four dozen Americans that a Senate report Wednesday said had converted to Islam and become radicalized before moving to Yemen.

The State Department's top counterterrorism official, Daniel Benjamin, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that the presence of such individuals in Yemen is "obviously a major concern for us," although "we can't stop people from going across the ocean."

Overall, both Qirbi and Benjamin -- who testified with Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs -- put a positive face on U.S.-Yemeni relations, saying that the countries are working closely together to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that U.S. military and development aid is rapidly increasing. Benjamin said Yemen would receive $63 million in aid this year, with additional military funding anticipated.

All three men, who met several times during Qirbi's visit, spoke of a "holistic" approach that would address the "root causes" of radicalization in Yemen, including poverty and unemployment.

But while Benjamin praised what he said was Yemen's recently arrived-at understanding of the threat posed by the al-Qaeda group, Qirbi said it was the United States that had recently awakened to the danger. "We felt that over the last 20 years, since Yemen started its fight against [al-Qaeda], that nobody paid much attention," he said.

In recent weeks, the United States has launched precision-guided missiles against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen, using Yemeni intelligence, according to U.S. military officials. Both countries have refused to comment publicly on the extent of U.S. intervention, with Yemen acknowledging only the assistance of U.S. "firepower."

Although administration officials have acknowledged a rapid increase in intelligence cooperation and military training in Yemen, they have said they are aware that too big an American footprint would exacerbate already strong resentment of a U.S. presence there.

On other matters, Qirbi said there had been little discussion during his visit of nearly 100 Yemeni detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. An administration review has cleared 45 of them for release, but President Obama suspended their repatriation after the Dec. 25 attack. Qirbi said his government thinks the Obama administration's plans for indefinite detention without trial for some Guantanamo detainees "plays into the hands of al-Qaeda."

Echoing statements by other Yemeni officials, Qirbi said the radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi had survived a recent Yemeni airstrike. "He's alive, in one of the remote areas" of the country, Qirbi said. The Obama administration has said that Aulaqi was instrumental in radicalizing Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the deadly Nov. 5 shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.

Qirbi said his government has asked Aulaqi's father, a former president of Sanaa University, to persuade his son to turn himself in to face "legal action" in Yemen.

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