May 19, 2008

Yemen walking a fine line

Yemen has finally imprisoned Jabr al-Banah, one of the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists after months of allowing him to roam free unhindered in the country after not only escaping from prison, but appearing in court! It sounds unbelievable, but that is what happened. (See my earlier article, Yemen - State sponsor of terrorism?

Why the sudden change of heart? In addition to pressure from the United States government for allowing a convicted terrorist (and American citizen - he has dual citizenship) to evade justice, Yemen has had some challenges of late. One of the more serious challenges (other than me calling them a state sponsor of terrorism) is the fact that earlier this month, Usamah bin Ladin ordered his al-Qa'idah operatives to leave the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and head for Yemen.

Bin Ladin assessed - correctly - that the climate in Yemen is much more conducive venue to base his terrorist operatives. Since 2003, the Saudis have cracked down on al-Qa'idah operatives in the kingdom after some high-profile attacks on facilities of the Saudi government and on housing compounds of contractors serving the interests of the kingdom.

Although many of us in the intelligence business have often ridiculed Saudi external intelligence capabilities, we have all had a healthy respect for the extremely capable and often ruthless internal security apparatus. That apparatus has been systematically and effectively hunting down and killing al-Qai'dah terrorists to the point that bin Ladin decided it was no longer viable to operate in Saudi Arabia. The best option for al-Qa'idah was to move its operations base to Yemen, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on the planet.

What happens now? That remains to be seen. Will Yemen allow itself to become a new al-Qa'idah stronghold, or will Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih exercise some backbone and keep his commitments to the United States to be an ally in the war on terrorism. Putting al-Banah in jail is good signal to the United States. Although the United States would prefer that al-Banah be extradited to the United States to stand trial for his role as as one of the "Lackawanna Six" - a terrorist support cell operating in New York state, Yemeni law does not permit sending al-Banah out of the country.

In the meantime, al-Banah has been sent to the same "maximum security" prison that he easily escaped from two years ago. Let's see if he stays there.

This is a test for the Salih government.