||SANA, Yemen â€” When the Yemeni authorities released a convicted terrorist of Al Qaeda named Jamal al-Badawi from prison last October, American officials were furious. Mr. Badawi helped plan the attack on the American destroyer Cole in 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed.
But the Yemenis saw things differently. Mr. Badawi had agreed to help track down five other members of Al Qaeda who had escaped from prison, and was more useful to the government on the street than off, said a high-level Yemeni government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mr. Badawi had also pledged his loyalty to Yemenâ€™s president before being released, the official said.
The dispute over Mr. Badawi â€” whom the Yemenis quickly returned to prison after being threatened with a loss of aid â€” underscored a much broader disagreement over how to fight terrorism in Yemen, a particularly valuable recruiting ground and refuge for Islamist militants in the past two decades.
Yemeni officials say they have had considerable success co-opting jihadists like Mr. Badawi, often by releasing them from prison and helping them with money, schooling or jobs. They are required to sign a pledge not to carry out any attacks on Yemeni soil, often backed by guarantees from their tribe or family members. Many have taken part in an Islamic re-education effort led by religious scholars, now being copied on a wider scale in Saudi Arabia.
A number of these former jihadists have become government informants, helping to capture a new generation of younger, more dangerous Qaeda militants â€” some of them veterans of the war in Iraq â€” who refuse to recognize the Yemeni government. Others have become mediators, helping persuade escaped prisoners to surrender.
But American counterterrorism officials and even some Yemenis say the Yemeni government, more than others in the region, is in effect striking a deal that helps stop attacks here while leaving jihadists largely free to plan them elsewhere. They also say the Yemeni government caters too much to radical Islamist figures to improve its political standing, nourishing a culture that could ultimately breed more violence.
â€œYemen is like a bus station â€” we stop some terrorists, and we send others on to fight elsewhere,â€ said Murad Abdul Wahed Zafir, a political analyst at the National Democratic Institute in Sana. â€œWe appease our partners in the West, but we are not really helping.â€
Uneasy Alliance With Jihadists
All parties agree that the situation is urgent. With a young, poor, and fast-growing population of 22 million, Yemen is rapidly approaching an economic and political crisis that could result in its becoming a failed state. The government is fighting a persistent insurgency in the north, oil supplies are dwindling, and the water table in the capital is expected (according to a World Bank estimate) to run out in two years. Like Afghanistan, Yemen has a weak government with strong tribes and mountainous terrain, and a vast weapons supply.
The Yemeni government argues that its approach is in keeping with their deeply conservative society, where Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein remain popular figures. Although a new American-trained commando unit has regularly captured and killed terrorists, officials say they must also show restraint with prisoners: taking a harder line or acceding to American demands to extradite people like Mr. Badawi (as the United States has asked) could provoke a violent backlash.
â€œThe strategy is fighting terrorism, but we need space to use our own tactics, and our friends must understand us,â€ said Rashad Muhammad al-Alimi, Yemenâ€™s interior minister.
Yemenâ€™s uneasy partnership with jihadists dates back to the late 1980s, when it welcomed tens of thousands of returning Arab veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. While other Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, struggled with the question of how to accommodate those jihadists, Yemen was actively open to sheltering them, said Gregory Johnsen, a security analyst at the terrorism research group Jamestown Foundation. At the time, President Ali Abdullah Saleh saw the returning fighters as a useful military and ideological weapon against the restive socialists of southern Yemen.
When a brief civil war broke out in 1994, President Saleh sent thousands of jihadists into battle against the south. He also forged important ties with Yemeni Islamist clerical and political figures like Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a former mentor of Mr. bin Laden who has a broad popular following and has since been listed as a â€œspecially designated global terroristâ€ by the United States and the United Nations.
Those ties persist today, despite American complaints. Some American officials say the influence of Islamists, and entrenched government corruption, may have made possible the spectacular escape of 23 Qaeda figures, including Mr. Badawi, from a well-guarded prison in the capital in February 2006. Yemeni officials blamed poor oversight for the escape, in which the prisoners are said to have tunneled their way to the bathroom of a neighboring mosque.
Finding a Balance After 2001
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Saleh flew to Washington and pledged full cooperation with American antiterrorism efforts. At home in Yemen, thousands of former â€œAfghan Arabsâ€ were rounded up and imprisoned.
But Mr. Saleh was still sensitive to Islamic extremists, who remained a crucial domestic constituency. When the Pentagon leaked word of Yemeni collaboration in an American missile strike in 2002 that killed the suspected leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, Mr. Saleh was furious.
That same year, Mr. Saleh hit on an idea that he hoped would satisfy both his American and Islamist partners: â€œal hiwar al fikri,â€ or intellectual dialogue. This was an effort to inculcate the idea that Islam, properly understood, does not condone terrorism. Sessions began with hundreds of former jihadists who remained in prison without charges.
â€œIt came from the idea that terror depends on ideology, and that thought should be confronted with thought,â€ said Hamoud al Hetar, the cleric and judge who led the program.
A cleric would sit for several hours with three to seven prisoners, mostly outside the prison, and discuss Islamic law and ethics, Judge Hetar said during an interview at his home in Sana.
At first, the Saudis and others derided the idea as too soft. At the same time, many Yemeni religious scholars refused to participate out of fear that they would be assassinated by militants, Judge Hetar said. Gradually the program gained acceptance, and Saudi Arabia soon adopted its own version, including therapy and a more comprehensive reintegration program.
Some critics have dismissed the dialogue program, which lapsed in 2005 after terror attacks dropped off, as a sham in which inmates feigned conversion to get out of prison. But Nasser al-Bahri, a former driver for Mr. bin Laden who spent four years with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, said it was more like a raw bargain: exempt Yemen from your jihad and you will be left alone.
â€œIt changed their behavior, not their thoughts,â€ said Mr. Bahri, a cheerful, talkative 33-year-old who once went by the nom de guerre Abu Jandal. â€œJudge Hetar cannot cancel jihad. It is in the roots of our religion.â€
Sitting on the floor of a bare living room in his Sana apartment, Mr. Bahri said the government helped him buy a taxi and pay for business school after his release in 2003. Although he says he still supports Al Qaedaâ€™s global goals, he also urges other Islamists to avoid any violence in Yemen.
Ali Saleh, another former jihadist who went through Judge Hetarâ€™s program while in prison, now serves as a mediator between the government and Islamists. He helped negotiate the surrender of several of the 23 men who escaped from prison in Sana in early 2006. In exchange, the government agreed to make concessions, including releasing the men after their surrender, he said.
â€œThe government understands, in Yemen you must compromise to reach a solution,â€ Mr. Saleh said. â€œThe Americans would like to put us all in jail. But if you do this, 10 men will become 20, 20 will become 100, and then â€” we will be an army.â€
A More Violent Generation
Some former jihadists also work as informants for the government and have helped foil a number of attacks, Yemeni officials said.
There appears to be a limit, however, to the governmentâ€™s ability to co-opt Islamists. A new, more violent generation of militants has emerged in Yemen, according to Yemeni officials and older members of the jihadist community.
Some of these younger men have fought in Iraq, and they refuse all dialogue, seeing Yemenâ€™s government as illegitimate. They appear to have been responsible for the suicide bombing in Marib Province last July in which eight Spanish tourists were killed, and two other suicide attacks on oil installations in 2006. Recently, there have been warnings of more attacks in Yemen on Islamist Web sites.
â€œThey opened a door we hoped would be closed forever,â€ Mr. Bahri said.
The younger men also see older figures like Mr. Bahri, despite his association with Mr. bin Laden, as traitors. Mr. Bahri said Yemeni security men had showed him a â€œdeath listâ€ of 30 names written by members of this younger generation, with his name at the top.
Last summer, two Internet statements claiming to be from Al Qaeda in Yemen lamented that â€œsome of the people abandoned their principles and turned to the government.â€ The statement accurately describes the mediating committee on which Ali Saleh serves, and goes on to say, â€œThose deserters became the governmentâ€™s hands; some of them turned into their spies,â€ according to a translation provided by the SITE Institute.
Mr. Bahri said he has tried to reason with members of the younger generation of militants, but they refuse all dialogue. He and Mr. Saleh, the mediator, now carry a weapon at all times, and fear for their safety, Mr. Bahri said.
In addition to the threat of these younger militants, there is the broader question of whether Mr. Bahri and his friends are involved in terrorism outside of Yemen. Mr. Bahri still supports the goals of Al Qaeda, and he speaks admiringly of Yemenis who fought in Iraq.
Yemeni officials say they have stepped up efforts to prevent Yemeni men from traveling for jihad. But Mr. Bahri says he knows 10 or 15 men who fought in Iraq, including two who went through Judge Hetarâ€™s program.
Asked what he did to advance the cause of Al Qaeda outside of Yemen, Mr. Bahri smiled, and said answering the question could be dangerous â€” but that not answering it could also expose him to risks, from a different group of people. After a pause, he said he merely prayed for Al Qaedaâ€™s success.
Another veteran of the Afghan jihad, Ali Muhammad al-Kurdi, said in open court during the course of an unrelated terrorism trial in 2005 that he had trained two Yemeni men to fight in Iraq. He was never prosecuted for the claim, because it is not against Yemeni law.
â€œThey went to Iraq and fought, and they were killed there,â€ said Mr. Kurdi, a soft-spoken 33-year-old, smiling at the thought, as he sat for an interview in a cafe in Old Sana.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company