by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 27 September, 2002
THE AL-QAEDA spotlight has once again turned towards Yemen, following a series of arrests in Pakistan and the United States as well as Yemen itself.
Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni, was arrested in Karachi after a gun battle, along with nine other people, most of whom are said to be Yemenis.
Binalshibh, who is now in American custody, has been dubbed "the 20th hijacker" because he was allegedly due to have taken part in the September 11 attacks but failed to get a US visa. The "20th hijacker" title was earlier bestowed on Zacarias Moussaoui, who is currently awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, six Americans of Yemeni descent who allegedly belonged to a New York terrorist cell, are awaiting a judge's decision on whether to grant them bail.
Five were arrested near Buffalo, New York state, in mid-September. The sixth was arrested in Bahrain and sent to the US. Two other suspects, named as Jaber Elbaneh and Kamal Derwish, are thought to be in Yemen.
The men apparently went to Pakistan to study Islam but are said to have also visited Afghanistan where they allegedly heard a speech by Usama bin Laden and received weapons training.
The men's lawyers say they are victims of misinformation who pose no danger.
In Yemen, three al-Qaeda suspects were arrested and two others killed when security forces stormed a house in al-Rawdah on the northern fringe of the capital, Sana'a.
A woman in a neighbouring house was injured, along with two members of the security forces, in a gun battle that lasted almost two hours. Officials said a cache of weapons was found during the raid.
These developments came amid renewed attacks on Yemen from American conservatives and reports that the United States might be planning to send snatch squads into Yemen to make further arrests.
The Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, claimed that Yemen, along with Georgia, is host to terrorist training camps, though there is a lack of "actionable intelligence" relating to them.
"Training camps, yes, but also people plotting and doing plots," he told a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Wolfowitz did at least acknowledge that the US is "working actively in different ways" with both the Yemeni and Georgian governments. But an article in the Wall Street Journal accused "the terrorist-infested no-man's land on the tip of the Arabian peninsula" of refusing to co-operate, adding that Yemen "may have sealed its fate when it said last month that it would not extradite its terrorists".
In reality, given the sensitivity of Yemen's internal politics, there has been a surprising degree of co-operation, particularly on the tightening of border controls and the training of Yemeni special forces by the United States.
American demands for arrests have brought wide-scale human rights abuses, with large numbers of people now detained without trial. The Yemeni parliament recently set up a special commission to investigate.
Although precise figures are not known, it seems likely that many of those held are not genuine al-Qaeda members. More serious suspects, who are usually well armed, often escape or resist arrest. One failed arrest in Marib last December left more than 20 people dead.
Much interest has focused on the deployment of 800 US special forces to Djibouti, a short hop across the sea from Yemen. The US has not confirmed the purpose of the mission, although media reports have hinted that it could be aimed against al-Qaeda members in Yemen.
Djibouti's acting foreign minister, however, said it was only a military exercise which began in August and would end in October.
Yemeni officials have been reluctant to discuss the reports, but Associated Press cited unnamed American officials as saying that negotiations between the two governments are taking place.
The talks, which on the American side involve the US ambassador in Yemen and General Tommy Franks, the US regional military commander, are said to include discussion of covert missions to capture or kill suspects, possibly as joint American-Yemeni operations.
Such operations would undoubtedly carry high political and military risks that might offset any benefits resulting from arrests.