US ambassador to Yemen Gerald Firestein asserted that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is too weak to take control of Yemen. But he acknowledged that Al Qaeda has changed its strategy and now seeks to control areas and impose its reign. He refused to confirm that Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen are being killed by American security services, but he said that if Al Qaeda in Yemen had headquarters where its leaders gathered, then "life would have been easier."
Firestein discussed the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in supporting the Houthis and the southern separatists in Yemen. The following is the text of his interview with Al-Hayat held in London, where he participated in a preparatory meeting for the Conference of the Friends of Yemen that is to be held in Riyadh next May .
Al-Hayat: How would you describe your relationship with the new order in Yemen?
Firestein: For us, the power transition actually began on June 3, when President Saleh was the subject of an assassination attempt and his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, became acting president. I knew Hadi when he was vice president. After he became acting president in March we worked with him more closely. We are currently working with President Hadi and Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa — whom I have known and worked with when he was a leader in the opposition — very productively on fundamental issues that concern the two countries.
Al-Hayat: After the opposition has become part of the government, are they hesitating in cooperating with you?
Firestein: Just the opposite. I can say that cooperation in fighting terrorism today is the same as in the past, if not better.
Al-Hayat: Was President Saleh less cooperative?
Firestein: It is difficult to compare 10 years of bilateral cooperation with President Saleh’s regime to a few months of cooperation under the new government. But I emphasize that cooperation now is as good as in the past.
Al-Hayat: You had a role in pushing President Saleh to step down and agreeing to early elections. But since he left, Al Qaeda has been expanding and gaining strength. Do not you see a relationship between the two?
Firestein: I think that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has benefited from the political crisis of the past year. The differences between the political and the military leaders have weakened their ability to act effectively against Al Qaeda. This allowed it to adopt a more aggressive strategy. I therefore do not attribute the expansion of Al Qaeda to the power transfer from President Saleh to President Hadi, but I think the Yemeni government and its army has lost some of their ability to respond to Al Qaeda's actions.
Today we are seeing part of Al Qaeda’s strategy. It is trying to show that the transition to a new leadership in Yemen has not affected or reduced its ability to continue its violent actions, its expansion, or its control. What we are now seeing is a limited operation whose primary objective is to create a psychological atmosphere among Yemenis that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can no longer be stopped.
Al-Hayat: Do you think it can be stopped?
Firestein: I don't think at all that it cannot be stopped. I think it is a weak organization that has benefited from unique circumstances. In the coming period, the results of initiatives we are working on will appear ... for example, in the area of reorganizing the security establishment, the reunification of the military units, and the continuation of the political transition. All these will help the government to reestablish its authority. And when those initiatives start producing results, Al Qaeda's ability to continue on the path it is currently on will weaken.
Al-Hayat: But don't you think that Al Qaeda cannot really be stopped as long as the Yemeni army is split?
Firestein: I think that the divisions within the military establishment are an obstacle to the implementation of a successful campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But I will not go as far as saying that there is nothing we can do to stop Al Qaeda under the current circumstances, but on the contrary. Of course, if we resolve certain political issues that are causing confusion in the Yemeni army, then our initiatives against Al Qaeda will have a better chance for success.
Al-Hayat: When you talk about the support you are receiving from the Yemeni army in the war against Al Qaeda, does that support come from all the Yemeni army, including the units that split from President Saleh?
Firestein: All elements of the Yemeni army are involved in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I therefore think that the answer to your question is yes.
Al-Hayat: For a while we have been noticing that Al Qaeda has changed its strategy. In the past, it used to launch attacks and flee to its mountainous hideouts. But now Al Qaeda controls areas and rules them. Do you think that Al Qaeda’s strategy now is to control the country, and do you think it can do that?
Firestein: I do not think it can control the country. They have obviously changed their strategy because they see an opportunity available and they want to create a psychological atmosphere that even if they cannot control the country they want the Yemenis to feel that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can no longer be stopped, and that the Yemenis should therefore accept the organization and show that some segments within the Yemeni community are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. I therefore think that what Al Qaeda is doing now is scoring a psychological success that may afterward neutralize the opposition to Al Qaeda in Yemeni society.
Al-Hayat: But how do you explain the ability of Al Qaeda to control entire regions? Does it enjoy the support of certain tribes?
Firestein: I think they have some support from Al Qaeda sympathizers in Yemeni society, as is the case for example in the tribal areas of Pakistan, or in the situation in Afghanistan. But the ability of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to control regions is not because it is a strong organization but because 15 months of political crisis have weakened the government and its ability to control its territory. Therefore, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is expanding in a vacuum and I think that if the government and the Yemeni army pushed back against Al Qaeda their effort will succeed and will be supported by most Yemeni tribes. For example, we have seen what happened in Radaa in January when Al Qaeda and its supporters tried to enter it. What prevented them was opposition from the tribes. The same thing is happening in Abyan, where we saw a clear response from the tribes to Al Qaeda's expansion attempts. I therefore think that the vast majority of Yemeni tribes are not sympathetic to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and do not support its vision, but they need to know that the government is strong, able, and willing to exercise its sovereignty over its territory.
Al-Hayat: During the past months, Al Qaeda in Yemen has lost many of its leaders to aircraft raids that many believe you are behind. What is your response to these allegations?
Firestein: As a rule, we do not comment on activities and allegations regarding possible intelligence operations. Therefore I cannot comment on the specific allegations. But of course I can say that we are closely working with the Yemeni government’s security establishment in the fight against terrorism, specifically in operations aimed to defeat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and to deny its leaders the ability to move around in Yemen. This is a priority for us and we are painstakingly working on it.
Al-Hayat: How does Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fit with the global threats by Al Qaeda branches to American interests?
Firestein: Certainly, when we assess the capabilities of different groups related to Al Qaeda around the world, we place Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula at the top [of our priorities]. If you look at Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, it is clearly weaker now than a year ago. Al-Shabaab in Somalia has experienced a series of defeats and were forced to evacuate Mogadishu. Al Qaeda in East Asia is much weaker now than before. The same applies to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Qaeda in Iraq. All these groups suffered a series of defeats in past years. But Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an organization that can endure. It was able to take advantage of the political and security situation in Yemen to expand its reach and presence.
Al-Hayat: After the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, do you think that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still focused on targeting the United States, or have they become focused on Yemen?
Firestein: We believe that they have not at all given up on their aspirations to wage global jihad, not only against the United States but also against our friends and allies around the world, such as the United Kingdom, Western Europe and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. We believe that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in still actively looking for opportunities to launch attacks [outside of Yemen].
Al-Hayat: When we used to talk of “foreign jihadists,” they usually used to go to Iraq. Do you now see that the foreign jihadists are seeking to join Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?
Firestein: Certainly. When we discuss these issues with the Yemeni government, they find in Al Qaeda [in Yemen] members from different parts of the world. There are members from Somalia, different areas in the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Syria, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Western Europe. Therefore, it is clear that there is a stream of foreign fighters coming to Yemen.
Al-Hayat: Are these in the dozens or hundreds?
Firestein: It is difficult to answer that.
Al-Hayat: There were reports that 300 gunmen came from Somalia to Yemen.
Firestein: There has certainly been a strong presence of Somalis in Yemen for some time, so it is likely that Somalis are a significant part of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Hayat: There has been allegations that Iran is trying to interfere in Yemeni affairs by sending weapons and training rebels. Do you have any evidence of this alleged Iranian role?
Firestein: We are very concerned about the aggressive Iranian effort to build relationships in Yemen, in particular with the Houthis but also with other elements in the Yemeni community in the south as in the north. We believe the Iranians intend to destabilize the situation and prevent the process of political transition from succeeding. We see indications that the Iranians are providing military aid and training some of these elements in Yemen, in addition to providing support in the areas of finance and politics.
Al-Hayat: Why do you think they are supporting the Houthis?
Firestein: It is clear that the Iranians want to expand their influence through the developments in Yemen, whether by influencing Yemen internally or by establishing a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. And it is normal for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to regard that as a security threat.
Al-Hayat: Are the Iranians providing support directly or through proxies?
Firestein: The available evidence confirms that Hezbollah and Hamas are supporting this Iranian effort. We are also aware that there is a southern Yemeni presence in Beirut that is being used as a conduit for Iranian support for disturbances in southern Yemen. The Iranians are trying to spread their influence not only via the Houthis but via other Yemeni parties too.
Al-Hayat: So do you think that the Iranians are encouraging Yemeni southerners to secede?
Firestein: At least they are encouraging them to disrupt political solutions to southern issues.
Al-Hayat: What is your government's position with regard to the southerners’ aim to secede?
Firestein: US policy is clear regarding Yemen’s unity. That issue was resolved in 1990 when the country was reunited. In 1994 the US had clearly supported maintaining Yemen's unity, and our position remains the same today. We also point out that the GCC initiative [to solve the current crisis in Yemen] clearly indicated its intention that internal Yemeni discussions over differences must be resolved within the framework of a united Yemen. And UN Security Council resolution 2014 also speaks of the unity of Yemen. The whole international community supports Yemen's unity and sovereignty, not just the United States.
Al-Hayat: Is there a difference between Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar al-Sharia?
Firestein: They are one organization. Ansar al-Sharia is just a front or cover for Al Qaeda.
Al-Hayat: Do you know where the Al Qaeda command center is in Yemen?
Firestein: I think the leadership of the organization is currently dispersed. They are not in a specific building. I wish they had a building in which they all lived, because then life for us would be much easier. Historically, Al Qaeda’s base was in Marib but now it is in Abyan, where the senior leadership is often located. But I do not think that there is one location that can be considered as their command center.
Al-Hayat: Are you certain Al Qaeda cannot control the country?
Firestein: I do not think it can do that and I do not think that most Yemenis could support or embrace Al Qaeda. I think that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will always be a relatively small group. It has the ability to obstruct and cause an atmosphere of violence and terrorism and it has succeeded in that because of the weakness of the Yemeni government and the weakness of the Yemeni military in controlling the land. But the situation is temporary and when the government makes progress in that area Al Qaeda’s ability will disappear. I think that, at the end of the day, through the cooperation initiatives between the Yemeni government and both the US government and the international community we will succeed in defeating Al Qaeda and completely expel it from Yemen.
Al-Hayat: It is no secret that you are worried about the activities of some within the Islah [Reform] Party.
Firestein: We should be clear. We have a very good relationship with the Islah Party and we are closely working with its leadership, which is a full participant in the democratic process and is committed to its fundamental principles. We do not have a problem with the Islah Party in this area and I hope that we continue to maintain good communication with them. But on the other hand, there are clearly elements in the Islah Party whom the United Nations classifies as a terrorism supporters, specifically Abdul Majeed al-Zindani. We have many reasons to worry about him. We have expressed our concerns with the Islah Party leadership and we have been clear that the presence of Abdul Majeed al-Zindani and his supporters and followers in the party is a problem for us and for the rest of the international community. We will continue looking into this issue. But as long as the Islah Party stays on the democratic path and part of the Gulf Initiative and coalition government, then we will maintain our relations with it.