Culture Clash in Yemen

Two Worlds Collide In Arab Nation

This week, the Pentagon announced that as many as 150 American special forces are on their way to Yemen to train Yemen's army to capture terrorists. The U.S. has long accused Yemen of being a haven for terrorists and when President Bush challenged world leaders to be either with the United States or with the terrorists, Yemen vowed to weed out al-Qaida once and for all.

But, as Correspondent Vicki Mabrey found when she went there, it won't be easy.

The U.S. Embassy in Yemen is on the front line of the war on terrorism. It's one of the most heavily-defended embassies in the world, for good reason. crews arrived there just hours after the FBI announced a new terrorist threat against American targets in Yemen.

It's no coincidence that before he went to Yemen, U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull headed the State Department's counter-terrorism unit.

"What we have in Yemen," he says, "are people who are very active in the al-Qaida global network. They're significant people, significant in moving people, moving material, moving money. So when they are taken out, I think it'll be a significant blow for al-Qaida."

Finding them and taking them out is easier said than done.

A place where the modern mixes with the medieval, Yemen was closed to the outside world until the 1960s when it got its first telephone. Today, its isolated landscape offers plenty of places for al-Qaida to hide. The Yemeni population is armed to the teeth with 60 million guns - three for every Yemeni.

In Marib province, Yemen's version of the American Wild West, the government is struggling to assert control over the tribal sheiks that run the countryside. It is establishing checkpoints with lists of al-Qaida suspects and building up troops to catch them.

Last December, the government sent troops to Marib to arrest two al-Qaida suspects and ended up in a shootout with tribesmen. The tribesmen killed 18 soldiers, and the suspects got away.

Yemen's most powerful tribal leader and the leader of Yemen's Parliament, Sheik Abdullah al-Ahmar – also known "the sheik of sheiks," tells Mabrey Yemen was bullied into joining the war on terrorism.

"In my opinion, the requests made by the United States to the Arab and Muslim world are ridiculous," he says. "Such requests stem from a standpoint that is characterized by force, arrogance and tyranny."

He says he's not convinced Osama bin Laden is behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and denies that there is a terrorist network in Yemen. "It's the United States that's making these claims," he says. "What proof does the United States have?"

But Yemen's foreign minister, Dr. Abubaker al-Qirbi thinks differently. He says the government has detained 84 men since Sept. 11. While 60 Minutes II crews were in Yemen, security forces chased down Samir al-Hada, one of the suspects wanted by the U.S. They cornered him in a house but before they could arrest him, he blew himself up with a hand grenade.

Al-Hada's family ties reveal a lot about how the al-Qaida network works here:

  • Al-Hada and one of his brothers trained at a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan.
  • His father has been tied to the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole bombing, and the Sept. 11 attacks.
  • Al-Hada's brother-in-law was one of the hijackers who hit the Pentagon.
  • Another brother-in-law is on the FBI's latest list of suspects.

Ambassador Hull says al-Qaida has moved freely in and out of Yemen for years. "This is not like your 10 most wanted," he says. "It is a constantly evolving list of people, depending on who we know to be in Yemen, a handful of people who are important."

Bin Laden has roots in Yemen: his father was born here, one of his mentors is a radical Yemeni cleric, and his fourth wife is from here. But the most important link: thousands of Yemenis answered his call to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Dr. al-Qirbi, the foreign minister, says that's the main reason for the terrorist problem in Yemen today. "When these groups of people came back, they felt, 'Well, we've managed to defeat Russia. We can institute change now in the Arab world, maybe in the world in general.' And this is where I think we failed - when these people came back from Afghanistan. We did not realize that we were putting the seeds for extremism."

Yemen's powerful president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is not a natural ally of the United States. He opposed the Gulf War, and like Sheik Abdullah, he criticizes America's support of Israel. But after Sept. 11, he went to Washington to meet President Bush.

"Of course, we are against terrorism," he says, "so we responded positively to President Bush."

Saleh says his war on terrorism began after the attack on the Cole in October 2000. Though many Yemenis cheered the bombing, Saleh says it was an economic disaster, costing Yemen over a billion dollars in lost business and tourism. One of his first moves was to take control of fundamentalist Islamic schools, the kind of places that turn out militants. It was just such a place that John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, was looking for when he came to Yemen six years ago.

His mother had arranged for him to attend the Yemen Language Center when he was 17, but he left after a week, accusing his teachers of not being strict enough Muslims.

He may have found what he was looking for in a northern tribal area, at a strict Muslim school that was his last stop before joining the Taliban.

The story of those two schools is the story of Yemen: It's a place with many moderates, but look in the right places and you can find the extremes.