Former CIA official and al Qaeda expert Bruce Riedel shared his expertise on the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with ABC News. He served in the CIA from 1977 to 1991 and has served as a senior adviser to three U.S. presidents on Middle East issues. He has traveled to Yemen extensively throughout the years. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
A: Yemen has been a safe haven and stronghold of al Qaeda since the late 1990s. Yemen is where Osama Bin Laden's family originates from, in the southwestern part of the country.
It has a very attractive arena for al Qaeda, because it is one of the most lawless, ungoverned spaces in the entire world.
No government in the history of Yemen has really been able to enforce its writ throughout the entire country. And it is precisely these types of ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan and Somalia and in Yemen and in Pakistan that al Qaeda has always thrived.
I don't know that there are significant other terrorist groups based in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the merger of the al Qaeda cells in Yemen and the al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia. That merger happened about a year ago because the Saudis had been so effective in repressing al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia that its infrastructure in the Kingdom itself was largely destroyed. And they had to go to Yemen to find sanctuary where they can operate.
Q: Did the Bush Administration pay adequate attention to Yemen as a threat in terms of terrorism?
A: The Bush Administration tried to deal with this problem, particularly in the aftermath of the attack on the USS Cole that occurred in the last months of the Clinton Administration. But they found it very difficult to. The Yemeni government has many other priorities on its plate. It has an insurgency in the northern part of the country, which has been getting worse in the last year. It has a secessionist movement in the southern part of the country, which used to be South Yemen before 1990, which was trying very hard to break away from the country.
The economy is largely dependent on oil exports but Yemen's oil reserves are literally drying out. So it comes less and less. So there are many other priorities the Yemenis have, and ever since 1990, when Yemen sided with Iraq in the first Gulf War, relations between the United States and Yemen have been very scratchy. The Cole investigation made them even more scratchy because both sides felt that the other was not fully cooperating, probably correctly.
So trying to get the Yemenis to focus on al Qaeda has been a very difficult and frustrating task for the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration and now the Obama Administration.
Q: Has the Obama administration paid adequate attention to Yemen as a threat? Did either administration underestimate the threat?
A: I think the Obama Administration has seen this as a very significant problem from day one. The president's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, early on focused on this as one of the key priorities in dealing with al Qaeda. But the same problems that bedeviled Clinton and Bush before them still bedevil Obama, which is the Saleh government is weak, it has other problems and much of the security services have been heavily infiltrated by Jihadist sympathizers over the year.
So, for example, there have been repeated jailbreaks of senior al Qaeda operatives out of prisons in Yemen, including the current head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was in a Yemeni jail and broke out in 2006. And many of these jailbreaks have all the earmarks of inside jobs.
Individual incidents aside, I give the Obama administration credit for seeing this problem early on and for recognizing that it was getting worse over the course of time. But there are no easy solutions and no magic answers to these problems.
Q: How big is the U.S. intelligence presence in Yemen?
A: For operational sources and methods and reasons, I'm going to pass on that question.