Jonathan Winer is the former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement. Currently a partner at the firm of Alston and Bird LLP, he also serves as a Member of the Council of Foreign Relations Task Force on Terrorist Financing.
TM: Have there been any positive developments recently in Yemen to counteract Yemen as a terrorist breeding ground?
JW: Prior to 9/11, Yemen was not thinking about Islamic terrorism, it was thinking only about tribal terrorism. Since 9/11, Yemen has been cooperating with the US on countering Islamic terrorism by detaining and expelling terrorists, and by conducting military operations. But its borders remain porous and it is still a sanctuary for al-Qaeda. […] There is also the inheritance of Afghan Arabs who have come back to Yemen since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan post-9/11. These individuals are embedded in the security institutions in Yemen. The country is a good location for incubating terrorism, although recently the government has been more aggressive in combating it.
TM: Could you comment on terrorist financing as it relates specifically to Yemen, including any links with government officials?
JW: There are three or four main strands when it comes to this subject. One is the honey trade, with Abu Zubaidah and Khalil al Deek – both al-Qaeda members – who have been linked to the honey business. This is one sector.
The second sector involves the entities Osama bin Laden got going a decade ago in Yemen, including companies dealing with electrical appliances, ceramics, and publishing. These were operated through middle men and were linked to certain tribes: the Sana’a, the Sa’dah, and the Abayan. It is difficult to know a decade later to what extent these operations still exist.
There is also a huge amount of activity related to the Palestinians, especially Hamas, with the president of the country openly encouraging Yemenis to send arms and money to that group as recently as 2003. Charities and religious institutions have also been linked to support for terrorism. […] Another aspect of the problem is the hawala dars [informal network for money transfer], who are tied to narcotics traffickers. They also have links to money launderers in the US, especially in New York.
TM: Were there strong ties to Afghanistan prior to September 11?
JW: Yes, with the most prominent and important links being those involving Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, who has been very close to Osama bin Laden. Zindani is a major player in Yemeni politics and has likely been as significant a threat as has existed to Salih’s control of the country. He was the central figure sending Yemenis to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban and the central figure training and recruiting them as well. Zindani was designated as a global terrorist by the U.S. Treasury this February, and Yemen was asked to freeze all of his assets. Treasury has charged him with actively recruiting for al-Qaeda training camps and purchasing weapons on behalf of al-Qaeda and other terrorists. He was a leader of the Islamic Front, formed to channel Yemeni volunteers to the Afghan Jihad while enhancing Riyadh’s influence in Yemen. The Islamic Front in turn evolved into the Islah party. Although Islah is part of the current government, it and Zindani also represent a major source of covert and overt opposition to Salih’s government .
TM: Were there strong ties between members of the Yemeni government and Al Qaeda prior to September 11?
JW: Yemen was a prime location for the building of al-Qaeda in the early 1990’s with Zindani and his Al-Iman University playing a substantial role in recruitment. Yemen also housed a number of Osama bin Laden’s business interests. It’s difficult to determine from the outside how governmental and private business interests relating to al-Qaeda were intertwined in Yemen prior to September 11. The government of Yemen has been largely run by and for a small group close to the president of the country. Corruption is rampant in the private and public sector, extending to the higher levels and exemplified by government conferred monopolies and contracting and licensing abuses. So to the extent that bin Laden had businesses in Yemen, senior officials or friends of the government of Yemen likely played some facilitation role at least. Separately, it is also pretty clear that there was senior support for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Yemen’s police, security and military services prior to September 11. Bin Laden was not alone. The Yemeni government has reportedly allowed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to maintain offices in Yemen, and members of Islamist terrorist groups from Algeria, Egypt, and Libya have also used Yemen as a haven.
TM: Regarding Hamas, are there any additional details you could provide about who — individuals and/or organizations — are supporting them with arms and funding? What impact does Yemen’s support for Hamas have on its relations with Washington? Do you have an estimate for how much money flows from Yemen to Hamas?
JW: The President of Yemen has encouraged Yemenis to send weapons, men and money to the Palestinians to help their struggle in the West Bank. The President has supposedly met with a leader of Hamas (Khaled Mashaal, based out of Damascus) and has supported the organization with financial donations. This state-sponsored support for Palestinian terrorism by Yemen has continued since the September 11 attacks. On May 4, 2002, the Associated Press reported that the Yemeni president was making a donation of $10 million to the Palestinian Authority and to “active Palestinian forces” such as the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This was later appended with a correction that stated that the donation had not come directly from the president’s personal funds, but was “collected from Yemenis.”
TM: Which do you think presents a greater security challenge for the US – Saudi Arabia or Yemen?
JW: While Saudi Arabia may be of more national security significance for the U.S. given its size and wealth, Yemen may pose the greater security challenges. It is a much weaker state; much of the country is lawless and rural. Unless the president [Salih] decides to go after someone, there is impunity. Yemen also has terrorist links with other places that have had terrorist problems such as Indonesia and Afghanistan. Also, there is no real regulation of the financial sector, which is another huge challenge. Then there is the ideological overlay, which continues to reveal itself through Yemen’s treatment of the Palestinian problem. There is a culture of violence in Yemen as well as arms trafficking and overall poverty: 54% of the population is illiterate and half of the children are malnourished. Finally, the armed struggle between the tribes in Yemen is continuing. Their word for it is “thar” meaning on-going feuds between the Yemeni versions of the Hatfields and McCoys, which leads to a lot of revenge killings.
TM: Do you see Yemen moving towards creating stronger institutions necessary to combat terrorism?
JW: Yemen is an incredibly poor country, one of the poorest in the world; it’s in really rough shape. The government’s difficulties are endless: smuggling, drug growing – the drug being qat [the leafy narcotic chewed by Yemenis, primarily in the north, as well as on the horn of Africa]. […] Essentially the security forces are dedicated to protecting president Salih and his tribal federation, the Hashids. They don’t directly control security outside of these areas. When you have the level of poverty that exists in Yemen, it is easy to breed terrorism. The country needs a lot of help. In terms of its geography, there are similarities between Yemen and Afghanistan. The relationship between Yemen and Saudi Arabia and that between Afghanistan and Pakistan are similar. Both Yemen and Afghanistan are next to more prosperous countries, while they are more rural and ungoverned.
TM: In the aftermath of 9/11, there was some speculation that bin Laden might seek refuge in Yemen. Do you think this remains a possibility now?
JW: It is incredibly dangerous now for any country to knowingly house terrorists. Yemen has sought to oust al-Qaeda-related entities from the country. There are still some al-Qaeda related schools and other entities, but I do not believe that any area under government control would be a secure place for someone as notorious as Osama bin Laden.
TM: What direction do you think US policy toward Yemen should take?
JW: We should focus on getting more foreign assistance and trying to develop Yemen’s civil institutions. The more people from the Muslim world trying to develop it, the better. We should also help try to contain Yemen, in terms of those who travel from the country, and we should try to help it transform itself into an appropriate partner. Its political institutions, with the exception of their support for Palestinian terrorism, have shown themselves willing to work with us. We should also work on licensing the hawala system. But it is going to be a long struggle, so we should consider barriers to entry from Yemeni financial structures and individuals – or at least not before undergoing thorough background checks — before allowing them into the US. This problem will be with us for a long while.