San'a, Yemen Yemen’s president said he is ready to talk to al-Qaida members who renounce violence, suggesting he could show them the same kind of leniency he has granted militants in the past despite U.S. pressure to crack down on the terror group.
Yemen is moving cautiously in the fight against al-Qaida, worried over a potential backlash in a country where anger at the U.S. and extremism are widespread. Thousands of Yemenis are battle-hardened veterans of past “holy wars” in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq, and though most are not engaged in violence now they preserve a die-hard al-Qaida ideology.
“Any movement against al-Qaida will lead to the fall of the Yemeni regime,” warned Ali Mohammed Omar, a Yemeni who fought in Afghanistan from 1990-1992 and says he met Osama bin Laden twice during that time.
If the U.S. or its allies become directly involved, “the whole (Yemeni) people will become al-Qaida. Instead of 30 or 40 people, it would become millions,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Yemeni forces recently launched their heaviest strikes and raids against al-Qaida in years, and Washington has praised San’a for showing a new determination against al-Qaida’s offshoot in the country.
The United States has increased money and training for Yemen’s counterterror forces, calling al-Qaida in Yemen a global threat after it allegedly plotted a failed attempt to bomb a U.S. passenger jetliner on Christmas Day.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s comments raised the possibility he could continue a policy that has frustrated U.S. officials in the past — releasing al-Qaida militants on promises they will not engage in terrorism again.
Several have since broken those promises and are believed to have returned to al-Qaida’s ranks.
“Dialogue is the best way ... even with al-Qaida, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason,” Saleh said in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV aired Saturday.
He said Yemen would pursue those who continued violence, but “we are ready to reach an understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism.”
In the past, Yemeni officials have defended the reconciliation policy as a necessity, saying force alone cannot stop al-Qaida.
Saleh’s government has been weakened by multiple wars and crises. It has little authority outside a region around the capital, and tribes dominate large areas of the impoverished mountainous nation — many of them bitter at the central government for failing to develop their regions.
Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters, foreigners and Yemenis, are believed to be sheltered in mountainous areas. Al-Qaida Yemenis get help from relatives, sometimes out of tribal loyalty more than ideology — and when the government kills or arrests militants or their relatives, it risks angering the heavily armed tribes.
Another factor is the regime’s alliances with hardline Islamists, such as Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, one of Yemen’s most prominent clerics. The U.S. has labeled him a terrorist for alleged links to al-Qaida. But the government relies on his tacit support and denies he is a member of the terror group.