The FBI Puts Down Stakes in Yemen

  • Share
  • Read Later

TIME has learned that the FBI is poised to send agents back into Yemen because of intelligence reports that al Qaeda loyalists may try to establish bases in that nation's lawless areas. Yemen, along with Pakistan, is considered top priority by the FBI and the intelligence community as they try to interdict fleeing Bin Laden operatives scrambling to find sanctuary.

"There are clearly pockets of territory in Yemen and Pakistan where the government and military don't have total control," says an administration official. "That would lend itself to their desire to regroup and not be looking over their shoulders. The philosophy is, keep (al Qaeda) on the run... If we can continue to deny them a place where they can gather, raise funds and train, the threat will be marginalized."

Yemen as terrorist breeding ground

US counterintelligence officials believe that some top al Qaeda figures, such as Zawahiri and Abu Zubayda, have survived the war in Afghanistan and are now looking beyond their personal survival to establish new bases of operations where they can plan, communicate with far-flung cells, raise and disperse funds and move about with some security. As US strategists see it, al Qaeda members will be looking to establish safe bases in nations that are politically and militarily weak, corruptible and chaotic, yet with enough vestiges of civilization so that they can get in and out of the country via air or boat, send money via the regular banking system or hawalas and use telephone and e-mail.

Officials familiar with the intelligence believe that some key al Qaeda survivors escaped into Pakistan, and they hope to bolster the Musharaff government's military and political power in order to drive them out of that nation.

After Pakistan, Yemen is rated next most likely to attract clusters of al Qaeda leaders, because the country offers an inviting mix of political weakness, corruption, pro-Jihadism and military impotence.

Many al Qaeda loyalsts are ethnic Yemenis to start with. The San'a government has displayed deep ambivalence toward its radicals, imprisoning some after the Cole bombing, yet refusing the FBI and other US agencies access to their confessions.

FBI's role subject to politicking

Until recently, Yemeni officials had refused even to give the FBI and CIA a list of the prisoners incarcerated in Yemen for the Cole bombing and other terrorist activities. Then, at about 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, the FBI released an urgent warning and BOLO — be on the lookout — for 17 Yemenis and Saudis whose names had come up when a Yemeni held at Guantanamo told FBI agents that an attack was being planned for the next day, Feb. 12, either in the US or Yemen. But within 24 hours after the BOLO went on the FBI website, the FBI received a list of prisoners held in Yemen and discovered that six of the men being sought had long been in jail.

Some background: The decision to redeploy agents inside Yemen is being made with some trepidation. As we have reported before, a contingent of FBI agents investigating the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole was abruptly pulled out of San'a in June 2001, because of what FBI officials termed a "specific and credible threat" on their lives and those of their local translators and security guards. Being in country wasn't worth the high risk, FBI headquarters officials decided, since Yemeni authorities were cooperating only "grudgingly and slowly," as one official put it. Officials believed some elements of the Yemeni security forces hobbled the investigation out of sympathy for radical Jihadists. Others were thought to be making a good faith effort to work with the US but were hampered by the lack of both modern information systems and political will at the highest levels.

US Ambassador Barbara Bodine opposed the FBI's decision to pull out last June, arguing that embassy security measures were sufficient to protect the agents. Bureau officials refused to bend, insisting the ambassador only wanted the agents in country to preserve the fiction that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was backing the investigation. In fact, Bodine and FBI on-the-ground supervisor John O'Neill clashed so heatedly whenever O'Neill wanted Bodine to press Saleh for help that Bodine refused to allow O'Neill to return to Yemen after he left the country around December 2000. O'Neill retired from the FBI in the summer of 2001 to take a job as security chief of the World Trade Center complex; he died on September 11 as he was trying to lead his staff to safety. But even with O'Neill out of the picture, relations between Bodine and the FBI agents still stationed in Yemen did not improve.

Making concessions to fight the war on terror

The war and its aftermath has altered the FBI's risk-benefit calculation and convinced its leadership that some agents need to be in San'a on a continuing basis to do what they can to prevent al Qaeda refugees from exploiting the central government's impotence. As well, the FBI still has a lot of questions to ask about the Cole attack and the identities of the al Qaeda operatives behind it. Some of these men are still at large and officials think they may be among those plotting future attacks.

Relations between the FBI and the US Embassy have improved since Bodine was replaced by Edmund Hull, formerly of the State counter-terrorism bureau and the US Embassy in Cairo. Hull and FBI officials have enjoyed a good relationship in the past, and that solidarity is crucial because while Saleh has pledged to cooperate with the international anti-terrorism effort, FBI officials fear he may falter to out of concern for domestic political repercussions. FBI officials know they don't have the clout to convince Saleh to stay the course — so they hope the State Department and the White House will keep the heat on squarely focused on the Yemeni president.