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Growing Repression in Yemen May Feed al Qaeda

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A narrow stretch of water separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula nation of Yemen. It's the site of deadly al-Qaeda attacks, including the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and the West feared Yemen would become a launching pad for Islamic extremism. Instead, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland has slowly become a US ally in the battle against terrorism. Yemen's President Ali Abdallah Salih is at the White House today for talks with President Bush. Yemen has won Washington's favor, in part, through a controversial approach to dealing with extremists. But there is concern that government corruption and repression could undermine Yemen's long-term success. NPR's Eric Westervelt continues with our series on terrorism in the Horn of Africa region.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Outside Yemen's capital, Sanaa, villagers hurry to the local mosque for evening prayers, the call to faith echoing off the mud-brick fortresslike homes with their intricately decorated wooden windows.

(Soundbite of call to prayer)

WESTERVELT: In this impoverished, staunchly conservative Islamic country, the government is using faith as a tool to combat Islamic extremism. In this war, Hamoud al-Hitar's weapons are a sharp intellect, the Holy Koran and the words of the prophet Mohammed.

Judge HAMOUD AL-HITAR (President, Intellectual Dialogue Committee): (Through Translator) We try to understand deeply verses of the Koran and the sayings of the prophet--peace be upon him--in order to reach the highest principles of Islam and understand what is really written in the holy book.

WESTERVELT: Judge Hamoud al-Hitar is president of Yemen's Intellectual Dialogue Committee. In an approach unique in the Arab world in its scale, Yemen is attempting to treat radical Islam as a kind of cult best dismantled through discourse, what you might call religious deprogramming. Mixing debate with devotion, judges and imams sit down with young men detained by Yemen's security services and they try to talk them out of waging violent jihad against the West.

Judge AL-HITAR: (Through Translator) We tell them if you are right, we will follow you. But if what we are saying is right, you have to admit it and follow us.

WESTERVELT: Judge al-Hitar says mutual respect and listening are crucial. You have to be patient, he says, humble and modest. He claims the Dialogue Committee is able to reform about 40 percent of suspected radicals.

Judge AL-HITAR: (Through Translator) Extremists, these believing youth, point to specific passages in the Koran without really understanding the rest of the verses or knowing the full context.

WESTERVELT: But many in the West are skeptical. These aren't just people who've tinkered with radicalism. Many were found to be part of active extremist groups. The allegedly rehabilitated radical has to sign a document renouncing his fundamentalist ways, and the family and tribal members have to vouch for him. But other than that, there are few safeguards he won't simply tell the judge what he wants to hear and go back to his jihadi ways. Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, insists that only a small number are the hard-core al-Qaeda true believers.

Mr. ABU BAKR AL-QIRBI (Yemeni Foreign Minister): We realize that they are a danger to be released, but there are others who are not of the same indoctrination or commitment, and these are the ones that we take a chance with.

WESTERVELT: Yemen's intelligence and security services keep an eye on any released, reformed radical. In fact, many are given work including jobs, al-Qirbi concedes, in the government.

Mr. AL-QIRBI: Whether as teachers or as administrators or even in...

WESTERVELT: Some are in the military.

Mr. AL-QIRBI: ...some in the military, yes. And this is all of the process of keeping track of them.

WESTERVELT: It is a gamble, but in a country that's seen two major al-Qaeda attacks in the last five years, Yemen sees it as a worthy risk. But the dialogue approach to threats is only part of the government's response to Islamic extremism. Security officials have also cracked down on militants as well as opposition figures and journalists. There's a heavy military presence on the streets of Sanaa and fear the country is increasingly becoming a police state. Mohammed al-Asadi is editor of the Yemen Observer.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-ASADI (Editor, Yemen Observer): ...(Unintelligible) chief of (unintelligible), and he was beaten up severely. People asked him about his source about corruption. And the government says if you are criticizing the president or an institution, you are bad. You should not do that, (unintelligible) the government. Otherwise, don't write about bad things.

WESTERVELT: This summer bloody riots broke out across the country after the government reduced price subsidies for fuel. More than 30 people were killed and hundreds more were injured.

(Soundbite of street noises)

WESTERVELT: In rural Yemen it's still tribe and family, not the ruling General People's Congress, GPC, that holds the most sway. Not far from the Saudi Arabian border, the small town of al-Anon(ph) sits on a high rocky plateau in the mountains of al-Jawf Province. Walking through the outdoor market, teen-age boys in makeshift stalls hack apart freshly slaughtered goats and chickens. Villagers are shopping for the sunset meal that ends the day's Ramadan fast.

After the deadly attack on the USS Cole and after 9/11, there was widespread fear this rugged, mountainous and heavily armed country would become another Afghanistan, a terrorist safe haven. So far it hasn't, but many believe the conditions that foster extremism are still very much alive here in rural Yemen. There's widespread disenchantment here with the ruling GPC party over corruption, nepotism, neglect and outright repression.

Corruption, many Yemenis say, is eroding any confidence they had in the ruling party and President Ali Abdallah Salih, who's run Yemen for almost three decades. For example, this school of 400 girls has no paid teachers. A neighboring province was able to bribe and buy out the teaching slots allotted for the school. So recent graduates have volunteered to teach their peers. This young teacher, who doesn't want to give her name, says she'll continue to work without pay, a lab or a library until God says otherwise.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Through Translator) How can you let this generation go by without education? It's something we have to do. Who's going to teach the girls if we don't?

WESTERVELT: Health care is no different. Locals charge that corruption and turf battles at the Ministry of Health and the governor's office have undermined the opening of the town's first hospital.

Sheik FAISAL AMEEN ABU RASS (Tribal Leader): Greedy officials. They don't care. They just don't care.

WESTERVELT: Sheik Faisal Ameen Abu Rass, a tribal leader from al-Jawf, is a member of Parliament from the ruling party. He sits next to a stream in his home province. He recently resigned from Parliament, calling the ruling body a government of mass destruction. Abu Rass warns that corruption plays right into the hands of extremists, who deride widespread fraud and whose calls for a return to an idealized caliphate rule resonate with some rural tribes.

Sheik ABU RASS: With economical hardship, with amount of corruption, I'm sure you will find somebody that can play with the minds of people about rallying them to do, you know, those kinds of acts.

WESTERVELT: Adding to the volatile mix, Yemen remains flooded with firearms. They're as plentiful and easily available as khat, the narcotic stimulant widely chewed across the country.

(Soundbite of market activity)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: How much is this gun?

Unidentified Woman #2: Two hundred.

Unidentified Man: This gun?

WESTERVELT: Two hundred? For the rifle and the machine gun together, how much?

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: A shop owner chambers a round in a sniper rifle and offers to close the sale by firing off a few practice shots into the sky.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: For the right price, the shop owner says, you can easily find brand-new AK-47s. Abdul-Rahman Marwani directs House of Peace, a group trying to stop gun violence and tribal revenge killings.

Mr. ABDUL-RAHMAN MARWANI (Director, House of Peace): (Through Translator) It's very easy to buy guns and heavy weapons, pretty much anything but fighter jets.

WESTERVELT: Britain and the US are helping to strengthen Yemen's coast guard and train security forces. The US recently gave Yemen 12 new patrol boats, but many think it's hardly enough in a country with lawless coastal waters, porous borders and where Osama bin Laden is seen by some tribesmen as something of an Islamic hero who stands up to the West and Israel. British Lieutenant Colonel Nigel Smith(ph) works in the region.

Lieutenant Colonel NIGEL SMITH (British Official): My own personal opinion on this would be that Yemen has the potential to become a Somalia, a failed state, in five years' time unless we focus effort now in trying to support and assist the government there to sort of shore themselves up.

WESTERVELT: Better to send in 100 soldiers now to help train the Yemeni military and border security, Lieutenant Colonel Smith says, rather than send in thousands of soldiers a few years from now. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

NORRIS: Photos, maps and more stories in the Horn of Africa series are at our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.