U.S. authorities have renewed their focus on Yemen as a nexus of terror in recent weeks, and are increasingly worried about threats from Islamic radicals who have sought sanctuary in Osama bin Laden's ancestral home, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials.
The fears have prompted an escalating campaign by U.S. diplomatic, military and law enforcement officials to increase cooperation with Yemen's government, which has mobilized troops to crack down on suspected militants since Sept. 11 and has announced plans to expel more than 100 foreigners for questionable activities.
President Bush and Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih reviewed anti-terror measures in a telephone call Monday, and Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who is overseeing the military campaign in Afghanistan, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III have made recent visits to the country. An FBI investigative team returned to Yemen this week for the first time since June, when it left after serious security threats.
The focus on Yemen sharpened further on Wednesday with the apparent suicide of an al Qaeda suspect identified as Sameer al-Hada, who blew himself up with a hand grenade after being cornered by Yemeni security police outside the capital of Sanaa.
Al-Hada was a member of a clan that has been linked by U.S. investigators to three signature attacks blamed on al Qaeda: the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and, now, the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
A cell phone number traced to the clan has been used for years as a "switchboard" by al Qaeda leaders, and had been linked to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, according to evidence presented by U.S. prosecutors in the case.
FBI investigators have subsequently tied the same telephone number to the 2000 bombing of the Cole and to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, sources said. One of the hijacking leaders, Khalid Almihdhar, who was married to al-Hada's sister, is known to have called the number, according to U.S. officials.
The Yemen connection to al Qaeda surfaced frequently in the 2001 embassy bombings trial. One of the convicted defendants, Mohamed Rashed Daoud Owhali, traveled to Yemen in the months before the bombings and was given the al-Hada phone number to reach a contact named in the court transcript as Ahmed al Hazza. Sources said that is merely another way to spell al-Hada's name.
According to testimony, Owhali made calls to the number both before and after the Nairobi attack, including efforts to get money and a passport to leave Kenya. The same number received two calls from bin Laden's satellite phone in the middle of Owhali's attempts.
Although Yemen has been of keen interest to the United States since the Cole attack, the recent discoveries have heightened U.S. concerns, one intelligence official said.
"I don't think there's any doubt in anyone's mind, including the Yemenis, that the country has been a haven of terrorist activity," said one U.S. official. "It's definitely in the top three" alongside Somalia and Pakistan as potential sanctuaries for al Qaeda members, including bin Laden, the official said.
Nearly all of the men named by the FBI on Monday in a global terrorism alert hold Yemeni passports, including five who have since been identified as prisoners in Yemeni jails. U.S. investigators hope to interrogate the prisoners to learn more about a Yemeni national, Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei, who has been linked by the FBI to a possible terrorist plot.
In addition, scores of prisoners detained by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, come from Yemen.
Yemen, with a largely uncontrolled border and wide regions under the control of tribal warlords, has long been identified by U.S. intelligence officials as a haven for al Qaeda operatives. The country was a longtime hotbed of Islamic radicalism that attracted foreign students, including American John Walker Lindh, who is accused of fighting alongside the Taliban.
But prior to Sept. 11, the Salih government did not give FBI investigators access to Cole suspects, and U.S. officials privately complained about a lack of cooperation.
Since the terror attacks, Salih's largely secular government has "turned around their police and intelligence cooperation 180 degrees," said one Bush administration official. Names and photographs provided by Yemen helped lead to the latest terror alert, and the government has engaged in regular skirmishes with heavily armed tribes in attempts to apprehend at least two senior al Qaeda leaders.
But large parts of the country remain lawless and hostile to Yemeni forces. Eighteen soldiers were killed in one recent clash.
"To the extent they can help, they are helping," one U.S. official said. "I think the resolve is there. But they didn't necessarily become more capable and competent post-9-11."
Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, visited the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on Monday to pledge training and other assistance. A U.S. team had toured Yemen's coastal areas to determine what equipment is needed to help protect its shores. Salih is seeking funds to develop a coast guard and acquire military equipment from the United States.
Retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, Bush's envoy to the Middle East, is also slated to visit Yemen soon, in part to discuss the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told the Associated Press this week that "cooperation with Yemen is important" to avoid a resurgence of active al Qaeda strongholds. "Intelligence cooperation throughout the region is really important, because we don't want them to regenerate themselves," Rice said.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A18709-2002Feb15.htmlE-mail this article