In Yemen, Locals Worry about Obama Policy on Al Qaeda

By Horton, Michael | The Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

In Yemen, Locals Worry about Obama Policy on Al Qaeda


Horton, Michael, The Christian Science Monitor


From smoky halls to the rugged mountains of Yemen, locals are worried that their country - threatened more by poverty and water shortages than terrorism, they say - could turn into another Afghanistan.

Amid an intensifying US effort to curb Al Qaeda activity in Yemen,

locals in this impoverished country are worried that a focus on

military aid alone could backfire - spawning a more robust militant

movement and potentially drawing the US into an Afghanistan-like war.

In a smoke-filled hall in the capital of Sanaa, where men gather to

chew the mildly intoxicating leaves of the qat tree and smoke water

pipes, most of the talk is about Al-Qaeda and American intentions in

Yemen.

"By God, they want to turn this country into Afghanistan,"

declares Mohammad al-Jaffi, a young man who says he fled the Arhab

area, a mountainous region just north of Sanaa, after a recent attack

on a suspected Al Qaeda hideout. On Monday, the government said it

killed two Al Qaeda members in the Arhab region.

"We are not radicals here," Mr. Jaffi adds, his cheek bulging

with the pulpy green leaves that strict Salafis -- the Muslim sect

that Al Qaeda members belong to -- consider forbidden. Holding up a

qat branch, he yells, "Look at this. We all chew this here - in

Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis would kill us for chewing

qat."

But US and other foreign diplomats are clearly concerned. France,

Germany, and Japan all closed their embassies Monday, following US

and British closures the previous day, amid reports that a

significant amount of explosives had gone missing from the Yemeni

army.

'Exclusive focus on Al Qaeda a mistake'With the reported surge in

Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen, the Obama administration has reiterated

its "partnership" with the increasingly vulnerable regime of

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who faces a rebellion in the north and

secessionists in the south. Gen. David Petraeus, who as head of the

US Central Command (CENTCOM) is overseeing the wars in Iraq and

Afghanistan, announced on Jan. 1 that the US would double military

aid to Yemen after allocating a reported $70 million in 2009.

It has been widely reported that the US is also providing the Yemeni

government with intelligence and military trainers. Britain,

meanwhile, has announced that it will fund an antiterror police

force. Such a sole focus on suspected terrorism is seen as a mistake

by some experts as well as locals.

"I think an exclusive focus on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of every

other threat in Yemen is a mistake," says Gregory Johnsen, a

Princeton PhD candidate who was recently in Yemen for his research on

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). "Viewing this threat only

through the prism of Al Qaeda induces exactly the kind of result the

US is hoping to avoid."

Locals in two provinces often cited as Al Qaeda strongholds, Al- Jawf

and Marib, are more concerned with severe poverty - an issue they

say the central government has done little to alleviate.

"This government does not care about us. Everything we have, we

have to fight for - to get money for a school or medicine we have

to block the road. …

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