Saturday, August 13, 2011

In Yemen's South, Islamists Gain Ground

by Kelly McEvers

August 13, 2011

The growing turmoil in Yemen is on display in the southern city of Aden, where tens of thousands of people have sought shelter after fleeing a nearby town that has been taken over by Islamist fighters.

The trouble erupted less than an hour's drive east of Aden, in the town of Zinjibar, about two months ago. Militants rumored to be affiliated with al-Qaida stormed the town, captured government buildings and looted the central bank. Government forces responded with airstrikes.

This upheaval drove some 90,000 residents of Zinjibar out of their homes, and some have now ended up camping out in schools in the larger city of Aden. They now live in a classroom, where beds have been set up and blankets donated by international aid organizations are piled on the floors. Eyad Salem Adelkhalin is one of these internally displaced persons. He says he and his three children had no choice but to flee from Zinjibar.

Militants Were From Abroad

Adelkhalin says the armed militants who stormed Zinjibar had long hair and long beards and spoke Arabic with an accent from other countries. He says they were big and strong and wore military vests packed with bullets.

The militants called themselves ansar al shariah, or "supporters of Islamic law," Adelkhalin says. They said they wanted to rid the region of corruption and offered to protect the people of Zinjibar.

Adelkhalin says he told the militants they had brought the trouble to the town, including the government airstrikes.

Despite the air attacks, Yemen's army has made little progress against the militants. Adelkhalin says local tribesmen joined in to fight alongside the army. Then, a few weeks ago, one of the government bombing raids killed more than a dozen tribesmen.

Adelkhalin said he saw it as something intentional, not an accident.

"Why would the government target the tribesmen unless they wanted to help the militants?" he said.

Conspiracy Theories Abound

Many people from Zinjibar said the same thing. They believe the government is too preoccupied with staying in power to fight the militants, or to help the civilian victims. In fact, some claim the government might even be complicit with the militants.

Hadija Salem Embrik, an anti-government activist, has helped people displaced from Zinjibar find shelter in Aden.

"The government did not do anything for the refugees," Embrik said. "The youth movement organized itself; it started to communicate with the businessmen and people from the private sector to help those refugees."

Many told stories of how they felt ignored by the government. They said government troops stood down while the militants took over, and civilians now fear the militants are moving closer to Aden. Rumors are circulating that arms are flowing into the city.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, says that without journalists or aid workers in Zinjibar, it's difficult to know whether the government is complicit in the militant movement. Either way, he says, the conspiracy theories ignore the real possibility of a wider militant takeover.

"I think it's a very worrying concern for not only people in Yemen who've been driven out of their homes, but of course for the United States and the Obama administration," Johnsen said. The U.S., he noted, is concerned that militants might help al-Qaida maintain a foothold in Yemen and use it as a base to carry out attacks against the West.

Saleh won't quit until opposition leaves

Aug. 13, 2011

SANAA, Yemen, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh says he won't step down until two political opponents leave the country.

Saleh, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, recovering from a June bomb attack, made the statement Saturday in a meeting with his ruling party, the General People's Congress, RIA Novosti reported.

Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, said he is willing to consider restarting talks on an agreement with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to leave office early, but he wants the two political foes to leave first.

Saleh said top Gen. Ali Moshen al-Ahmar, his half-brother, and Sheik Sadiq al-Ahmar must leave Yemen before he will leave.

Saleh has accused al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, of organizing the bomb attack on him at his home. Saleh suffered burns on 40 percent of his body.

Both opposition figures reportedly agreed to Saleh's demand they leave the country, the report said.

Yemeni opposition leaders said last month they wouldn't negotiate peace with Saleh unless he signs the Gulf Cooperation Council deal.

Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S. Officials Fear


August 12, 2011

WASHINGTON — American counterterrorism officials are increasingly concerned that the most dangerous regional arm of Al Qaeda is trying to produce the lethal poison ricin, to be packed around small explosives for attacks against the United States.

For more than a year, according to classified intelligence reports, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has been making efforts to acquire large quantities of castor beans, which are required to produce ricin, a white, powdery toxin that is so deadly that just a speck can kill if it is inhaled or reaches the bloodstream.

Intelligence officials say they have collected evidence that Qaeda operatives are trying to move castor beans and processing agents to a hideaway in Shabwa Province, in one of Yemen’s rugged tribal areas controlled by insurgents. The officials say the evidence points to efforts to secretly concoct batches of the poison, pack them around small explosives, and then try to explode them in contained spaces, like a shopping mall, an airport or a subway station.

President Obama and his top national security aides were first briefed on the threat last year and have received periodic updates since then, top aides said. Senior American officials say there is no indication that a ricin attack is imminent, and some experts say the Qaeda affiliate is still struggling with how to deploy ricin as an effective weapon.

These officials also note that ricin’s utility as a weapon is limited because the substance loses its potency in dry, sunny conditions, and unlike many nerve agents, it is not easily absorbed through the skin. Yemen is a hot, dry country, posing an additional challenge to militants trying to produce ricin there.

But senior American officials say they are tracking the possibility of a threat very closely, given the Yemeni affiliate’s proven ability to devise plots, including some thwarted only at the last minute: a bomb sewn into the underwear of a Nigerian man aboard a commercial jetliner to Detroit in December 2009, and printer cartridges packed with powerful explosives in cargo bound for Chicago 10 months later.

“The potential threat of weapons of mass destruction, likely in a simpler form than what people might imagine but still a form that would have a significant psychological impact, from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is very, very real,” Michael E. Leiter, who retired recently as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a security conference last month. “It’s not hard to develop ricin.”

A range of administration officials have stated that the threat of a major attack from Al Qaeda’s main leadership in Pakistan has waned after Osama bin Laden’s death in May, on top of the Central Intelligence Agency’s increasing drone assaults on Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas over the past three years.

But the continuing concern over a ricin plot underscores the menace that regional Qaeda affiliates, especially Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, now pose to the United States and American interests overseas.

“That line of threat has never abated,” said a senior American official, who referred to the terrorist group by its initials. “That’s been taken seriously by this government. What we know about A.Q.A.P. is that they do what they say.”

Al Qaeda’s arm in Yemen has openly discussed deploying ricin and other deadly poisons against the United States. “Brothers with less experience in the fields of microbiology or chemistry, as long as they possess basic scientific knowledge, would be able to develop other poisons such as ricin or cyanide,” the organization posted to its online English-language journal, Inspire, last fall, in an article titled “Tips for Our Brothers in the United States of America.”

Senior administration officials say ricin is among the threats focused on by a secret government task force created after the printer-cartridge plot. The task force is working closely with Saudi intelligence officials and the remnants of Yemen’s intelligence agencies, and it is using information gleaned from the shipboard interrogation of a Somali terrorist leader with ties to the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, who was captured by Navy Seal commandos in April.

The intelligence reports indicating ricin plots by Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate were first uncovered during reporting for a book, “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.” It will be published next week by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt & Company.

American officials now say that Al Qaeda’s most direct threat to the United States comes from the Yemeni affiliate. These officials have also expressed growing alarm at the way the affiliate is capitalizing on the virtual collapse of Yemen’s government to widen its area of control inside the country, and is strengthening its operational ties to the Shabab, the Islamic militancy in Somalia, to exploit the chaos in both countries.

“It continues to demonstrate its growing ambitions and strong desire to carry out attacks outside its region,” Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a speech last month, referring to Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch.

The affiliate has also become a magnet for terrorists fleeing the increasing pressure from drone strikes in Pakistan, and is recruiting specialists in bomb-making and other skills. “These guys have got some notoriety,” said a senior United States official who follows Al Qaeda and its affiliates closely. “They have a natural, charismatic attraction value for people who want to be jihadists and plot against the West.”

“A.Q.A.P.’s senior leaders are a lot like an organization that’s largely a brain that exists on its own and has to recruit its arms and legs to actually execute things,” the official continued.

Largely because of the Americans in the Yemeni affiliate’s top leadership, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric born in New Mexico who is in hiding in Yemen, American counterterrorism and intelligence officials fear the affiliate’s innovative agility. “The fastest-learning enemy we have is A.Q.A.P.,” said the senior United States official.

In recent months, as the Yemeni government has become nearly paralyzed, the Obama administration has stepped up pressure on the Qaeda affiliate there. It has escalated a campaign of airstrikes carried out by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command with the C.I.A.’s help. The C.I.A. is building a base in the region to serve as a hub for future operations in Yemen.

The Pentagon’s air campaign in Yemen was renewed in May after a nearly yearlong hiatus; since then the military has carried out at least four airstrikes in the country.

The ricin plots believed to be emanating from Yemen are the latest example of terrorists’ desire to obtain and deploy unconventional weapons in attacks. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin nerve gas on underground trains in Tokyo, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000, and nearly paralyzing one of the world’s leading economies for weeks.

In 2003, British and French operatives broke up suspected Qaeda cells that possessed components and manuals for making ricin bombs and maps of the London subway system.

A ricin-dispersing bomb detonated in a major subway system or in a mall or at a major airport would not result in mass destruction on the scale of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, counterterrorism specialists said. But it could inflict disproportionate psychological terror on big-city transportation systems. “Is it going to kill many people? No,” said Mr. Leiter, the former counterterrorism official. “Is it going to be a big news story and is it going to scare some people? Yes.”

Months after the initial ricin intelligence reports surfaced last year, Saudi intelligence officials revealed a twist to the ricin plot: Qaeda operatives were trying to place the toxin in bottles of perfume, especially a popular local fragrance made of the resin of agarwood, and send those bottles as gifts to assassinate government officials and law enforcement and military officers. There is no indication that Al Qaeda ever succeeded with this approach, intelligence officials said.