Yemen tries to salvage image

Twenty Yemenis have been arrested in a crackdown since the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

As the United States prepares for first strikes in its war against terrorism, the Arab state of Yemen - considered for decades to be a haven for militants - is trying to show that it is joining the effort against terrorists.

Even as it does so, however, debates rages across the Arab world, from talk at coffee- and spice-scented souks, to discussions by tie-wearing intellectuals. The topics: justice, the impact of any US military strikes, and how "terrorism" should be defined.

"Can we consider Yemen a center for terrorism or fanatics, and still be inside America's antiterrorism coalition?" Dr. Fares al-Sakkaf, head of the Future Studies Center in Sana, asks of a panel of academics and others representing many sides of Arab thought.

Several strings of the US investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks on the US lead back to this remote state at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula.

US prosecutors on Saturday said that a man carrying three Yemen passports with at least two false names was arrested in Toronto on the day of the attacks. He was trying to fly to Chicago; US Customs officials searching his luggage there found two Lufthansa uniforms and a piece of paper with Arabic writing sewn into pants pockets.

One of the hijackers of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon Sept. 11 is Yemeni. An alleged Yemeni accomplice who lived with him in San Diego has been taken into custody. German authorities last week issued an arrest warrant for a Yemeni, for his alleged "membership in a terrorist group" linked to the US attacks.

More than a dozen Yemen passports were also used by operatives in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which a Manhattan court found to be the work of the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.

But even as more such links emerge, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh has pledged its support in the US-led antiterrorism war.

Yemen has offered to host an emergency Arab summit, to form a united Arab statement against terrorism. On Sunday, the foreign ministry offered Aden as a refueling port for US warships. Officials here say that new security measures would prevent a repeat of attacks like the bombing of the USS Cole last year, which killed 17 sailors.

Meanwhile, some 20 Yemenis have reportedly been arrested here in recent days, suspected of returning home from training camps in Afghanistan. A man thought to be a Syrian national was picked up Saturday with three forms of identification with different names as he tried to take a taxi from Aden to the capital, Sana.

Still, there are no signs that Yemen is prepared to allow FBI investigators access to senior military and religious figures in the Cole case.

But Prime Minister Abdul-Kader Bajammal told the government's Al-Thawra newspaper that Yemen has expelled 4,000 Afghanistan-trained Arab fighters in recent years.

As Yemen tries to distance itself from America's antiterrorism gun sights, arguments at Mr. al-Sakkaf's panel discussion are heated about the impact of it all.

"Yemen is not a center for terrorism," says ruling party member Abdul Hafeed al-Nahar, a journalist. "Any newspaper that talks about our security or terrorism this way is stabbing Yemen in the back.... We make a difference between fanatics and terrorists, and it must be understood: fundamentalism has many forms. It could be terrorism, but it could be any expression that is not violent."

"This is a good solution for the [ruling party], to differentiate between fanatics and terrorists," says al-Sakkaf.

Deep laughter from the assembled men takes the edge off the debate for a moment.

"Islam is an old religion - it doesn't allow killing or terrorism," injects Nasser Yahia, a bespectacled member of the opposition Islamic Islah party. "But what is the definition of terror? The American definition has some special purposes, and has something else in mind."

"Why isn't the American campaign also against Zionist and European terrorists? Why does it only focus on Islamic states?" says Mohamed al-Mohdar, a young lawyer from Al-Qaf University in Yemen's eastern area of Hadramawt. "Muslims are just being hated and struck by a superpower."

Pointing fingers wag, as the temperature of the meeting increases.

"To defend Islam, the Prophet - peace be upon him - tolerated Jews and others inside society," says Dr. Ahmad Dageshi, a Sana University professor. Remember, too, he warns, that a distinction should be made between the strike on the Pentagon - a "legitimate" military target to some here - and those against the World Trade Center towers, which killed civilians.

A briefcase falls on its side with a bang: Everybody jumps and falls silent - then discussion resumes with nervous chuckles.

"The US will eliminate bin Laden and his group because they passed the limit," says Dr. Fuad al-Salahi, a sociologist at Sana University. He fears a larger, imperial motive of the anti-terror campaign: "America is trying to take those countries one by one, in Asia and even Europe. They want to control the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea."

"But what happens when Americans strike - is this a coalition Yemen should stand with?" asks al-Sakkaf.

"This takes us back to what definition of terrorism we should use," says Murad al-Murayri, a researcher at the Future Studies Institute. "Is it a fundamentalist? A fanatic? Islamic groups are financed by charity and zakat [alms-giving]. You can argue that this is one component of terrorism."

An American war, he says, could involve "chemical or nuclear weapons all over the Islamic world. How can America do this, when it is the one creating the problem and giving weapons?"

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