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US Prepares to Hunt al-Qaida Terrorists in Yemen - 2002-09-19

U.S. military officials say 800 special operations troops have been moved to the tiny African nation of Djibouti, where they could be used to hunt for al-Qaida terrorists in nearby Yemen.

Yemen has begun to cooperate in the War on Terrorism, and U.S. military officers are there discussing possible joint operations. But Yemen has been better known as a safe haven for terrorists.

Political analyst Walid Kazziha in Cairo explains why. "It is a country which has a central government, however a central government unable to reach its peripheries," he said. "Partly because it is weak and partly because you have a tribal setup in which regional magnets of power seem to have a great deal of autonomy."

The political science professor at American University in Cairo says there are close connections between members of the al-Qaida terror network and Yemeni Islamic organizations. He says Yemen's very low annual per-capita income, about $230, makes it a place where a little money can buy a lot of influence. In addition, Yemen is the ancestral homeland of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Mohammed Salah is an expert on Islamic movements like al-Qaida. He says those factors enable the group to take advantage of the tribal system that dominates Yemen's rural areas. Mr. Salah says these tribes have their own power and internal systems that are based on the protection of those who adhere to their laws. He says even outsiders who ask for protection are afforded it because protection is the very basis for the formation and existence of tribes.

Mr. Salah says, al-Qaida members who have traveled to Yemen from places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are most likely hiding within the numerous tribes in the country because, he says, the tribes will fight to the death in the name of protection.

Dispatching the troops to Djbouti and also sending a ship to the region with 2,000 Marines, U.S. officials say they have no specific intelligence on any al-Qaida terrorists in Yemen or anywhere else in the region. But they believe al-Qaida suspects may be hiding out near Yemen's border with Saudi Arabia. They also point to Yemen's long-standing links to terrorists.

At the same time, they note that Yemen's government is now cooperating with the war on terrorism. Earlier this year, U.S. troops were in Yemen to train Yemeni soldiers in anti-terrorism operations.

But so far Yemeni officials have insisted their troops will go it alone in the hunt for al-Qaida suspects.