Image: Ali Abdullah Saleh
Khaled Abdullah  /  Reuters file
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left the door open to negotiations with al-Qaida.
updated 1/11/2010 8:04:13 AM ET 2010-01-11T13:04:13

Yemen's president said he is ready to open a dialogue with al-Qaida fighters who lay down their weapons and renounce violence, despite U.S. pressure to crack down on the terror group.

The United States has complained in the past that Yemen struck deals with al-Qaida fighters and freed them from prison after they promised not to engage in terrorism. Some later broke those promises and are now believed to be active in al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed that his government is "determined to stand up to the challenges" of al-Qaida and that his security forces will track down as many al-Qaida fighters as possible among those who refuse to stop violence.

But he left the door open for negotiations.

"Dialogue is the best way ... even with al-Qaida, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason," he said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV aired late Saturday. "We are ready to reach (an) understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism."

The Obama administration says al-Qaida in Yemen has become a global threat after it allegedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day. Washington has dramatically beefed up counterterrorism funds and training for Yemen to fight the terror group, and last month Yemeni forces carried out its heaviest strikes in years on al-Qaida strongholds.

But Saleh's government has been weakened by the multiple wars and crises in the impoverished, fragmented nation. Mistrust of the United States is widespread among the population, as is Islamic extremism. So the government is wary that an overly harsh assault on al-Qaida — especially with overt American help — could raise opposition.

Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters — foreigners and Yemenis — are believed to be sheltered in Yemen's mountainous regions where tribes angry at the central government hold sway. Yemenis in the group have tribal links that make if difficult for security forces to pursue them for fear of angering the well-armed tribes.

Alliances with hardliners
The regime has also struck alliances with hardline Islamists to ensure their followers' support. In a prayer sermon on Friday, Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani — one of the country's most prominent clerics — railed against U.S. pressure to fight al-Qaida, accusing Washington and the United Nations of seeking to "impose an international occupation of Yemen."

The U.S. has labeled al-Zindani "a specially designated global terrorist" for alleged links to al-Qaida. But he is a close ally of Saleh, and the government denies he is a member of the terror group.

One al-Qaida sympathizer, Ali Mohammed Omar, warns that "any movement against al-Qaida will lead to the fall of the Yemeni regime," because it will be stretched between counterterrorism, its ongoing war against Shiite rebels in the north and secessionist turmoil in the south.

"When it fights al-Qaida, Yemen is seen as fighting on behalf of the Americans," he told The Associated Press.

Omar is one of thousands of Yemenis who went to fight alongside other Islamic extremists against the Soviet military in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He puts the number at around 20,000 — not counting younger Yemenis who more recently fought against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 42-year-old Omar, who said he is not a member of al-Qaida, warns of a bedrock of sympathy for the terror group among Yemenis that could turn to outright support, particularly if the United States becomes directly involved.

‘Torn to pieces’
"An American intervention to fight al-Qaida will draw everyone to the side of al-Qaida," he said. "The people are waiting. As soon as any American or British troops descend on Yemen, they will be torn to pieces."

Omar, who said he met al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden twice during his time in Afghanistan from 1990-1992, illustrates the San'a government's complicated ties with extremists. He was jailed twice after his return to Yemen in 1992. But now Omar, based in the southern city of Aden, runs an organization against the south's secession movement — apparently part of government attempts to break the movement, though he denies receiving direct support from San'a.

The government has used Islamic extremist fighters against secessionists in the past and is believed to be currently using them against Shiite rebels.

Yemeni officials have argued in the past that the policy of reconciling with al-Qaida fighters and extremists who are not members of the group is in part a necessity, given the realities in the country. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi, who is charge of security, said 600 veterans of the Afghan war of the 1980s and later conflicts there have gone through a rehabilitation program with clerics and officials and "are now good citizens."

But others jailed by Yemen and later released have since returned to al-Qaida activities, such as Fahd al-Quso, who is wanted by the United States for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison by Yemen in 2005 but then released three years later.

Now he is on the run with other al-Qaida fighters in the eastern province of Shabwa, a known stronghold of the terror group, said the province's governor, Ali Hassan al-Ahmar.

Until recently al-Quso was at his home in Aden and "wasn't active," al-Ahmar said in an interview Sunday with the Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. "He claimed that he was just staying at home, but it's clear he was meeting with groups of al-Qaida elements, and perhaps with elements from outside Yemen. ... It became clear that his location was a meeting place for al-Qaida."  

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Focus on Yemen

  1. Closed captioning of: Focus on Yemen

    >>> 7:18, and here's matt.

    >>> to the war on terror and a new focus on yemen in the wake of that attempted bombing of a u.s. passenger jet . nbc's chief foreign correspondent, richard engel is there. richard, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning. for the last nine years, u.s. policy has focused mainly on fighting al qaeda by attacking their bases in yemen , pakistan or even taking other iraq and afghanistan. but recent attacks have shown al qaeda no longer has a fixed address. yemeni counter terrorism forces show off their trining on a base outside sanaa, soughting a mock al qaeda hideout with live ammunition. but here in yemen , the man at the center of the al qaeda network attacking the united states , doesn't operate on a base at all.

    >> our muslim brother who is are in jail every sinister method of interrogation is used against them.

    >> reporter: the internet is where the yemeni-born cleric anwar al kleriki is.

    >> it's possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you.

    >> reporter: the 38-year-old al awlaki born in new mexico is often called al qaeda 's talent scout and he's been effective. he exchanged more than a dozen emails with the alleged fort hood shooter, major nadal hassan.

    >>> and said that the nigerian christmas day bomber was also in contact with him and met him in yemen . last week, president obama warned of the danger of a single, inspired terrorist.

    >> we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary.

    >> reporter: finding lone wolves is his specialty and his main goal is to recruit americans willing to attack their own country. eloquent, soft-spoken with an american accent . al awlaki can reach a new audience for al qaeda .

    >> he has the ability to reach people who don't speak arabic fluently. who fit no profile and that fits in exactly with al qaeda 's strategy.

    >> reporter: long suspected of ties to extremism and the 9/11 hijackerings, documents obtained by nbc news, show that he was obtained at new york's jfk airport in 2002 , but was released. he's now become one of al qaeda 's most strategic players and among yemen 's most wanted men. those who know al awlaki say he's extremely charismatic and capable. u.s. officials consider him a major threat. back to you.

    >>> richard engel in yemen . it's now 20 minutes after the

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