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To rein in Al Qaeda in Yemen, Britain taps its colonial past

Analysts in the UK says Britain's colonial history in Yemen may give it useful insights and expertise in dealing with the presence of Al Qaeda supporters there.

By Correspondent / January 5, 2010

Security measures are seen Monday outside the entrance to the British embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. Both the US and Britain resumed their diplomatic operations in Yemen Tuesday after closing because of threats of attack by Al Qaeda militants.




Both the US and Britain resumed their diplomatic operations in Yemen Tuesday after terror fears shut both countries' embassies. But despite the more tentative restoration of activities by the British – their doors in Sanaa remain closed to the public – some suggest that Britain is better positioned than the US to confront the threat from Al Qaeda in Yemen.

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While memories of Britain’s colonial involvement still arouse hostility among Yemenis, historians point out that the UK maintained its influence in southern Yemen for more than 100 years because of the savvy it developed in negotiating with and buying off tribal leaders.

It will tap into that knowledge to share strategies for isolating Al Qaeda in Yemen from tribal protectors at a major intergovernmental conference in London this month.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced last week that the summit on countering radicalization in Yemen would be held in parallel with a conference on Afghanistan in the British capital on Jan. 28. The forum will also focus on arranging a massive new transfusion of aid to the troubled country.

Michael Clarke, director of the influential Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says dealing with a new international security threat in Yemen revolves largely around synchronizing intelligence, but the London conference will be an opportunity to coordinate assistance to the country, ranging from security training to development aid.

While he characterizes the timing and location of this month's summit as coincidental, he says that Britain has a lot to offer on Yemen. “This is one of the issues where we may have more to offer because of our links and influence than in other areas of the world, such as the Pakistan border areas,” he says. “In some ways, Britain has got better visibility in Yemen than the Americans. I would suggest that the British have got better human intelligence on the ground,” he says.

For their part, British intelligence officials are thought to regard the threat in Yemen as coming from Al Qaeda members associated with the main organization in Afghanistan, rather than a new local branch.

“My understanding is that British intelligence has been tracking some Al Qaeda people who were moving from Pakistan’s borders areas because it has become more difficult for them to operate there,” says Mr. Clarke. “British officials are fairly clear that the Predator strikes, whatever the negative impact of them in Pakistan, have been very effective on the targets themselves.”

Britain acted before Christmas Day attack

Media reports in Britain suggest that before the failed Christmas Day bomb attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Britain had quietly sent a military unit to train Yemeni forces in surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and offensive operations.