LIANE HANSEN, host:
This past Friday, security forces in Yemen said they captured two suspects in the deadly attack on the destroyer USS Cole in 2000. One of the men arrested, Jamal Badawi, was one of Yemen's most-wanted terrorists. Earlier last week, nine other suspects in the Cole attack were arrested or, one might say, re-arrested. Ten of the 11 had escaped from a Yemeni jail last year. Observers say Yemen is cooperating with the United States in the fight against Islamist extremists, but US officials are only cautiously optimistic. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
After the Cole bombing, even after the September 11th attacks, the US pressured Yemen to increase counterterrorism cooperation. As the months passed, many in the Bush administration continued to see Yemen as a deeply reluctant partner in the war on terrorism. So it was with some pride that Yemen authorities last year very publicly announced the arrests of several key suspects in the Cole attack, which killed 17 American sailors. But Yemen raised eyebrows again in Washington when those very same eight suspects broke out of what, in theory, was a well-guarded jail in the southern port city Aden. Jonathan Schanzer is a Middle East analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. JONATHAN SCHANZER (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): How was it that a number of Cole suspects could drill through a bathroom wall and escape into the Yemeni night? It doesn't seem to add up. And, of course, you know, you start to wonder were there Yemeni officials who were involved in allowing this to happen?
WESTERVELT: The jailbreak embarrassed Yemen and only reinforced skepticism in Washington. One US official said, 'Charitably, we'd call Yemen's counterterrorism efforts "unorthodox."' For example, Yemen, last fall, announced a general amnesty for some low- to mid-level extremists accused of being involved in al-Qaeda linked attacks. They were let out of jail, Jonathan Schanzer says, as long as someone vowed to keep an eye on them.
Mr. SCHANZER: The promise from families or from clans or tribes that these people would be under lock and key, or at least they'd be watched very carefully. And it'll be interesting to see whether these people resort back to terrorism or if they've been reformed. But that's certainly a gamble on the part of Yemen. We don't see that in other countries.
WESTERVELT: Osama bin Laden's ancestral home is fiercely tribal, independent and awash in guns. There are an estimated 60 million weapons for the country's 20 million inhabitants. Yet some, including Schanzer, argue that Yemen's unique counterterror approach has proved quietly effective. The FBI and CIA have opened offices in Yemen, and American Special Forces based in the Horn of Africa are training Yemeni military and police.
Mr. SCHANZER: They haven't been beating their chests. They haven't been telling everyone, 'Hey, look, we're fixing our terrorist problem.' They're just doing it. And the result has been that there has been no terrorist attack in Yemen for about two years.
WESTERVELT: Yemen's intelligence services helped foil an apparent plot to attack the US Embassy in Sanaa last year, and this week Yemeni police quickly bolstered security around foreign embassies in the capital though they declined to say exactly why. In an interview with NPR, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz calls this week's re-arrest of the fugitive Cole bombing suspects a positive step. But Wolfowitz says he'd like to see Yemen do even more.
Mr. PAUL WOLFOWITZ (Deputy Defense Secretary): There are some things that we would like in terms of more aggressive detention of some of the terrorists that they hold and better access to some of them. But I would say overall, it's a pretty decent performance.
WESTERVELT: Room for improvement, though, in Yemen?
Mr. WOLFOWITZ: I think so.
WESTERVELT: Yemen's anti-terrorist effort's made more difficult by local tribal politics. There's a long tradition of local autonomy, of offering sanctuary and of exploiting disputes for their own tribal gain.
Professor MARK N. KATZ (George Mason University): Disputes between more powerful parties are an opportunity for them to maneuver to get something from both sides.
WESTERVELT: Mark N. Katz, a professor at George Mason University, has written widely on terrorism and politics in Yemen. Tribes in Yemen, he says, are constantly working to extract rewards for any government cooperation.
Prof. KATZ: What it means is that you just can't go in there and use force, but you have to play tribal politics; you have to understand the tribes and what they want. So what it requires is a tremendous degree of local knowledge about what's going on.
WESTERVELT: But few American military or intelligence experts have that detailed local knowledge to play tribal politics and effectively mix pressure with rewards. So the US will have to continue to rely on the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an autocrat who's trying to delicately balance domestic pressures with US cooperation. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.