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Patrick Cockburn: Threats to Yemen Prove America Hasn’t Learned the Lesson of History

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The United States and Britain have closed their embassies in the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a, citing security threats from an al-Qaeda group. On Saturday, President Obama connected the foiled Christmas Day attack on the Detroit-bound flight to al-Qaeda in Yemen. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown described Yemen as a “regional and global threat.” We speak with Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, and Michael Horton, a freelance journalist based in Yemen. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States and Britain have closed their embassies in the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a, citing security threats from an al-Qaeda group. On Sunday, deputy national security adviser John Brennan told NBC’s Meet the Press that, quote, “there are indications that al-Qaeda is planning an attack against a target in Sana’a.” When asked whether US military action was possible in Yemen, Brennan said, quote, “everything is possible.”

    JOHN BRENNAN: Everything is possible. As far as our cooperation with the Yemeni government, we want to make sure that the Yemenis have what they need to thwart these threats.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, President Obama connected the foiled Christmas Day attack on the Detroit-bound flight to al-Qaeda in Yemen.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re learning more about the suspect. We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies. It appears that he joined an affiliate of al-Qaeda and that this group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, trained him, equipped him with those explosives, and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.

    This is not the first time this group has targeted us. In recent years, they’ve bombed Yemeni government facilities and Western hotels, restaurants and embassies, including our embassy in 2008, killing one American. So, as president, I’ve made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government, training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence, and working with them to strike al-Qaeda terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown described Yemen as a, quote, “regional and global threat” and is calling for an emergency high-level international meeting on Yemen at the end of this month. He spoke to Andrew Marr of the BBC Sunday.

    PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: I think we’ve got to also get back to the source of this. And that is, in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, we’ve got to recognize that we’ve got a group of young people [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on Yemen and American and British reaction to the alleged terror threat from there, I’m joined now on the line from Britain by veteran journalist and author Patrick Cockburn. He’s the Middle East correspondent for the Independent newspaper who has reported from Yemen and is covering the latest news. We’re also joined on the line from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, by Michael Horton, a freelance journalist who’s based in Yemen.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Patrick Cockburn, let’s begin with you. Your article says that, well, the US and the Western countries should watch out. Why?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, Yemen is an extraordinarily dangerous country. It’s really an Arab version of Afghanistan. The central government is very weak. There are multiple insurgencies in the country. The government of — the central government may well want to link them all to al-Qaeda in order to get US and British support, but in fact these insurgencies have very different origins. I think that it’s — if you were to draw up a list of countries that it’s a really bad idea to get involved with, I think, in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, I think Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Yemen would be topping that list.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s been happening in Yemen over the last few years? You go through some of the examples in one of your pieces, where you talk about two vehicles packed with explosives driven by suicide bombers in September 2008, where nineteen people were killed, one an American woman, and other situations, Patrick.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Sure, yes. I mean, this was an attack on the American embassy. I’ve been inside it. It’s built like a sort of a bunker in World War II. It’s a pretty gloomy building. But it’s designed primarily for defense. There’s been a series of attack on the US embassy, on the British embassy.

But Yemen, in general, is a very violent place. The roads are often cut. There’s an insurgency by Shia in the north of the country, on the Saudi border, in which Saudi Arabia has become involved in that conflict. There’s secessionism in the south around Aden. Yemen was only united in 1990, and there was a civil war in 1994. It’s a very tribal country. The north of the country also is full of mountains and villages clinging to the sides of mountains with long terraces. It’s perfect guerrilla territory. I mean, there’s a long tradition of weak government. Almost everybody is armed. It’s said — I don’t know how anybody’s worked this out — that there are 60 million weapons in Lebanon for — in Yemen for 22 million people. But it’s not a place that any outside power is likely to come away with without suffering severe damage and heavy casualties.

AMY GOODMAN: It was President Obama who said he’s going to stop using the term “war on terror,” but — and yet, that just seems to have been ratcheted up now.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, it does. What I find extraordinary is, you know, that we have a sort of repeat of the situation that we had in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And also, you know, the real strength of al-Qaeda is that a quite small incident, that a botched attempt by a Nigerian student briefly in Yemen to blow up a plane, can then precipitate a whole change in international relations and US — greater US support for the Yemeni government, a greater involvement in a really difficult country. This seems to me walking straight into a sort of al-Qaeda trap. You know, at the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda quite openly — leaders quite openly said that their hope was to entrap the US into ground wars in Muslim countries. And that seems to be exactly what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Michael Horton from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Talk about the atmosphere on the ground right now, Michael.

MICHAEL HORTON: Well, a great deal of fear and despair. A lot of the Yemenis I’ve spoken with have expressed great fear over — regarding what America intends to do here. Many of them fear that US wants to turn this into Afghanistan. They stress over and over that it is certainly not Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but there are some similarities that — you know, the conservatism that [inaudible] here is quite different.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response in Sana’a to what happened on Christmas Day, the attempted bombing, and President Obama this weekend linking it to al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, Michael?

MICHAEL HORTON: Again, there’s just been a great deal of fear over what America actually intends to do here. I agree with much of what Patrick is saying. I mean, the one way to unite this country is any overt action by the US. Yemen has a long history of fighting against any outside force, going back to the Roman times. And as he was saying, the country is ideal terrain for asymmetric warfare. And if the US were foolish enough to get involved here, it has a potential to make the war in Afghanistan seem like a tea party.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Horton, the CENTCOM commander, David Petraeus, went to Yemen over the weekend and met with the President. Can you talk about the significance of this? He promised that the US would double the counterterrorism budget to Yemen. How closely does the Yemeni and US governments work together?

MICHAEL HORTON: Well, I mean, there’s a — I mean, the Yemeni government has a — has a, actually, somewhat difficult — has had a difficult time actually working with the US, and their efforts at combating al-Qaeda are certainly mixed. I mean, there have been a number of kind of mass prisoner escapes from supposedly high-security prisons in the past. And, you know, this upsurge in al-Qaeda activity coincides with an increased fragility of the Sala’a government. So there’s a real danger that al-Qaeda will be linked to a number of the, you know, separatists and insurgent movements in Yemen, which could then push them to actually join with al-Qaeda, even though many of them are now opposed to al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, the British prime minister Gordon Brown has described Yemen as a regional and global threat, calling for an emergency high-level international meeting on Yemen at the end of the month. The significance of this?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, of course, Gordon Brown is facing an election in four months’ time, so that’s one explanation as to why he’s taking such a high-profile action. Also, the Nigerian student was, after all, studying in London, so this may be also to explain his actions purely by what happened in — during his brief period in Yemen, rather than his rather longer period in London.

I think that it’s — you know, these foreign interventions of funding a counterterrorism force — well, who will decide in Yemen who is a terrorist? Certainly the Yemeni government doesn’t see al-Qaeda as its main enemy. It tends to see secessionists in the south, some tribal leaders, the Shia in the north as its enemies. So I think that this, as an operation for eliminating al-Qaeda in Yemen, this is either likely to be ineffective or counter-effective.

AMY GOODMAN: And Patrick Cockburn, the connection between Somalia and Yemen? There are over 200,000 Somalis living in Yemen now.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes. I mean, there’s always — Yemen is a fascinating country with a very rich history that, you know, is part of the Arab world, but it’s also a part of the Horn of Africa, that, yes, Somalis have fled there, have moved there.

I mean, one of the things these people all have in common is terrible poverty. More than almost half of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day, or try and survive on $2 a day. Somalis are equally impoverished. So, I mean, that’s another reason why it’s such a sort of fertile ground for reaction against any foreign interference in Yemeni affairs, just like Somalia was in the 1990s, you’ll recall.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, speaking to us from Britain, and Michael Horton, a freelance journalist based in Yemen, speaking to us from Sana’a.

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