Bruce Riedel joined Kristina Wong of ABC News to discuss al Qaeda’s stronghold in Yemen and the implications of the terrorist network’s presence on the Arabian Pennisula and beyond.
KRISTINA WONG: Is Yemen a safe haven for terrorists? What kinds of terrorists? Why Yemen?
BRUCE RIEDEL: 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.
WONG: How big is the threat now in Yemen in terms of terrorists and al Qaeda? How big is the threat there, versus Afghanistan and Pakistan?
I think some people are overreacting — the people who say, oh this is the end of the U.S.-China relationship as we know it. That’s not necessarily true. They could be lenient to Trump and treat Taiwan differently. We need to know a lot more and we shouldn’t pre-judge the situation but we shouldn’t trivialize it either.
RIEDEL: I would say the Yemen, in the last year, and in particular in the last few months, has emerged as a major staging base for al Qaeda to reach beyond Yemen, and attacking American targets in Yemen, but now to attack inside the United States itself.
The Fort Hood massacre was not launched by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but it’s pretty clear that Maj. Hasan was in touch with parts of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that they were encouraging him to do this. And, of course, we now have Christmas Day.
All that said, al Qaeda in Yemen is a subsidiary of the al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The head of the snake is in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s the al Qaeda core that provides strategic direction to cells like the one in Yemen or North Africa or Indonesia.
WONG: What are your recommendations for dealing with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen going forward?
RIEDEL: Recommendations for dealing with this problem is that we have to try to push the Yemeni authorities to see this as not just a threat to us but, in very real terms, a threat to them as well. And that means having intense engagement with the Saleh government at all levels; political, intelligence, military. And being willing to provide concrete support to help them.
The last thing I would say about recommendations is that I think the administration needs to recognize that this is not just a counterterrorism problem, but a larger problem of the U.S. relationship with the Islamic world. The president made an excellent start by addressing those larger issues in Cairo, but talking the talk is not enough. He needs to continue to push forward on issues like Arab-Israeli peace, the Kashmir conflict, and other issues which serve as the recruiting forces for al Qaeda, not just in Yemen, but on the global stage. Al Qaeda today is the world’s first truly global terrorist organization, and we can only defeat it if we see it in those terms, as a group that has created cells from Mauritania to Indonesia, and in the Muslim diasporas in Europe, and, now, increasingly among a small minority of disaffected Muslims in the United States of America. And to counter that threat requires not just the counterterrorism and military measures, but it also means countering the ideology that attracts this minority.