Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has long governed a tinderbox. His party survived armed clashes with separatist rebels in the country's south and Houthi tribesmen in the north. Al Qaeda is also a growing threat. Last month a suicide bomber detonated himself at a crowded archeological site in Yemen, killing four South Korean tourists, and earlier this month CentCom chief Gen. David Petraeus warned that Yemen was becoming a safe haven for Qaeda militants. Saleh spoke with NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino at his palace in Sanaa. Excerpts:
Peraino: There have been two prominent terrorist attacks here in the past several weeks. Is Al Qaeda growing in strength here?
Saleh: Al Qaeda has cells in Yemen, but our security authorities are hunting them down and searching for them everywhere, every minute, every day and every month. It's a continuous fight. We're throwing them out.
The latest incident is worrying because it seems like someone must have had inside information. Are you concerned people within your security services might have been involved?
We believe [the bombers] might have some persons who are positioned in the streets or inside hotels. They can provide them with information. It's simple. Also, we have a free press. They write that this delegation is coming, that envoy is leaving. It's not secret.
You don't think somebody from within the regime tipped them off?
No, no, no.
What's a bigger threat to the stability of your regime: the socialists in the south or the rebellious Houthi tribesmen in the north?
There's no threat, either from the separatists or the Houthis or Al Qaeda. But of course Al Qaeda is damaging our economy. It's damaging our tourism and business. So we have more concerns about Al Qaeda.
You hear a lot of complaints from Americans that your regime is too close to Al Qaeda militants. Is that something that concerns you?
This is completely false. We're suffering from Al Qaeda. They're targeting our cultural heritage. Those that are feeding this thing are extremists.
But in the past your government has supported Islamic militants, particularly in the south during the 1994 civil war.
That's not true. We have not supported the jihadis or Al Qaeda elements. But in the past, based on American cooperation, we supported the volunteers who went to Afghanistan, who used to be backed and supported by the United States of America itself during the war against the former Soviet Union. I believe you have gotten your information from elements within the United States of America who want to see Yemen as an obedient country. We have our own policy, based on our national interest, based on our common interests with others.
President Obama's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan came here a few weeks ago, and the Americans said publicly after that meeting that they had "concerns" about Yemen's ability to absorb the detainees from Guantánamo Bay. What did you say to reassure the Americans?
We are not obedient soldiers of the United States. We don't say just OK to everything that they ask us. We believe the United States of America—just like any other country—can make mistakes.
American officials have threatened to send at least some of the Yemeni detainees to Saudi Arabia instead.
If the Americans have a bilateral deal with the Saudis, it's up to them. We will always insist that these people should return directly to Yemen. They should give us the files on these detainees in order to send them to the court of law.
One complaint, though, is that militants are released too easily here. One hundred of them were reportedly released this winter. Why did that happen?
You want to close Guantánamo Bay. We want to do the same thing when the law is applicable. These people, according to the law, should not be held in jail without trial. If you don't have enough evidence that they committed a crime, they should be released. We released them after we made a thorough investigation that they were not involved in terror or any acts of violence. And we took big guarantees from their tribes, from their sheiks, to keep them under continuous control.
On Guantánamo, the Americans admit they made a big mistake. Are you saying that Yemen also made a mistake by arresting these men?
Actually, we're not sorry, because these people were arrested on suspicion of belonging to Al Qaeda. When we got enough evidence to prove they're not involved, they were released. At the same time, there are more than 150 people still in jail because the security services say these people are dangerous.
Obama has said he wants to engage Iran in dialogue. Is that a good thing?
The gestures President Obama sent to Iran are a positive thing.
Can he persuade Iran to relinquish its nuclear program?
No, but he might convince them to make this program for peaceful purposes.