/ 28 December 2009

Yemen: A new safe haven for al-Qaeda

An insurgency in the remote Shabwa region of Yemen backed by groups claiming loyalty to al-Qaeda has provided a new base for the global terror network, which is under pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The country, where the suspected airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was allegedly trained by al-Qaeda operatives, has had a reputation as a terrorist haven ever since the 2000 suicide attack against the warship USS Cole. Seventeen US sailors died when attackers rammed the destroyer with a small boat laden with explosives in the port of Aden.

The strategically important but impoverished country is now considered a key training ground for Islamist extermists along with Pakistan and Somalia. Last week an pro-al-Qaeda group in Yemen said it had declared war on the US.

Since the summer, hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced by clashes between government troops and rebels with the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shia Islam in the Sunni-dominated country.

Western analysts believe al-Qaeda has been able to establish a regional base in Yemen because the government is weak and distracted by internal conflict.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has also cooperated with the US war on terror, receiving tens of millions of dollars of aid and security assistance in return.

Last week, the government launched an air strike against what it claimed was a meeting of high-level operatives in the remote Shabwa region.

It claimed at least 30 militants were killed, possibly including Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric linked to last month’s mass shooting at the Fort Hood military base in Texas which left 13 dead.

However, it is feared Saleh’s support for the West has drawn the ire of Islamist extremists.

Almost half of the 210 detainees at Guantánamo Bay detention facility are Yemeni, while US intelligence sources say that about 60 continue to pose a security threat.

Yemen’s instability is thought to be one of the main reasons why President Barack Obama will be unable to meet his January deadline to shut Guantánamo.

The Foreign Office advises Britons against travelling to Yemen because ”there is a high threat from terrorism” and terrorists in the country continue to plan attacks.

”Attacks could be indiscriminate, including against western and British interests, such as residential compounds, military and oil facilities, and transport and aviation interests,” the FCO advice states. – guardian.co.uk