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Osama bin Laden's father's house stands in Wadi Doan, Yemen, though experts say it's far from the only reason Al Qaeda is on the rise there.
In the past two years, a large number of Saudi, Pakistani and Afghan militants have fled crackdowns on extremists in the Kingdom and escalating fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and resettled in Yemen. With its large swaths of unmonitored territory and weak central government, Yemen makes an ideal home base for foreign extremist like Abdulmatallab, the alleged bomber, and those who are said to have trained him.
“I think that the relative lawlessness of Yemen opens up safe havens,” said Gregory Gause III, an expert in Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont. “And the relatively permissive atmosphere [Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh took toward Salafi types, when he wanted to use them against leftists in the 90s and now against the Houthis [Shiite rebels in the north] has provided some political space."
Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world, is currently battling a Shiite rebellion in the north, an increasingly violent separatist insurgency in the south, widespread malnutrition, a looming water crisis, a failing economy and large numbers of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia, all of which threaten the stability of the central government.
In December, in two of the largest offensives against Al Qaeda in Yemen in years, American-trained Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected Al Qaeda hideouts around Yemen, allegedly killing dozens of militants, said Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. The U.S. has acknowledged providing intelligence and firepower for the strikes, and Special Forces have provided training to the Yemeni army since 2002.
U.S. military commander General David Petraus said Friday that the U.S. will likely double its military aid to Yemen, which is now about $70 million for the next 18 months, according to Reuters.
But observers inside and outside Yemen believe that the Yemeni government may not have the strength, or the political will, to deal with extremists who have found refuge in Yemen’s lawless tribal regions, areas were the government has little sway.
“Unlike the Saudis, who have a pretty good internal security force, and thus, when they began to see Al Qaeda as a domestic threat could deal with them ruthlessly, Yemen will have a harder time,” said Gause.
In the past, President Saleh has used extremist elements in Yemen as a card in a complex political game he plays to retain power, said Ali Saif Hassan, a political analyst and director of the Sana’a-based Political Development Forum. He has relied on and supported fundamentalist groups in Yemen since the 60s, and battled against them when it’s been politically expedient, he said.