Terrorism: A Tense Impasse In Yemen

During a Mideast trip earlier this month, FBI Director Robert Mueller made an unpublicized detour to Yemen in order to press an issue of serious concern to Washington: why has the Yemeni government refused to turn over an accused Qaeda terrorist charged in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors? The meeting between Mueller and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh did not go well, according to two sources who were briefed on the session but asked not to be identified discussing it. Saleh gave no clear answers about the suspect, Jamal al-Badawi, leaving Mueller "angry and very frustrated," said one source, who added that he's rarely seen the normally taciturn FBI director so upset.

The fate of Badawi is one of a number of terror-related cases that has generated tension with Yemen. U.S. officials only recently learned that another indicted Cole bomber, Fahed al-Quso, broke out of a Yemeni jail along with Badawi two years ago and remains a free man. Yet another accused Qaeda operative, Jaber Elbaneh, a 41-year-old American citizen with a $5 million bounty on his head (stemming from charges that he was part of a suspected Buffalo-area terror cell), was recently seen walking into a Yemeni court—and then nonchalantly walking back out again. The cases last Friday prompted President George W. Bush to have his own phone call with Saleh—a leader he once warmly praised for his cooperation in the War on Terror. "We are not fully satisfied yet," said one national security official familiar with the conversation.

The impasse with the Yemeni government coin-cides with an escalation in attacks from a resurgent Qaeda organization. In recent weeks, Westerners based in the country have been besieged by bombings and mortar fire aimed at the U.S. Embassy, a housing complex for foreigners and a Canadian oil-company facility. The State Department has evacuated all non-emergency personnel. Counterterrorism analysts say Saleh, preoccupied with tribal unrest, may be too weak to crack down on anti-U.S. terrorists. But if the Bush administration presses too hard for the Cole bombers, said analyst Brian O'Neill, an expert in the region, it could undermine Saleh even further and accelerate Yemen's devolution into a "failed state." Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy, said his country remains committed to fighting terrorists. "It is common that any allies will have bumpy roads from time to time," he said.