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Saudi concern rises over Al Qaeda activity in Yemen

Two Yemen-based militants dressed as women, one of whom was a former Guantánamo prisoner, were intercepted at a Saudi checkpoint last week.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2009

Yemen's government has been so preoccupied fighting Houthi rebels in the northern Saada province and separatists in the south that Al Qaeda militants can operate fairly freely.

Yemeni Army/AP/File

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The discovery by Saudi police of two Al Qaeda extremists wearing explosive vests in preparation for an "imminent" suicide attack underscores yet again the rising threat to Saudi Arabia from the deteriorating security situation in neighboring Yemen.

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The target of the foiled Oct. 13 attack is not yet known, Ministry of Interior spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki said Monday. But equipment found in the men's car last week, including explosives, machine guns, grenades, and two additional vests, suggests that the operation would have been significant – potentially resulting in the loss of many lives.

The men, one of whom spent several years in the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had been sent to Saudi Arabia by an Al Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, according to a Saudi Interior Ministry statement. Their foiled attack was the second close call for Saudi security forces in less than two months involving Saudi militants from the Yemen-based group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Made up largely of Saudis and Yemenis, AQAP is reportedly being reinforced by veteran jihadi fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some analysts. It is able to work in relative freedom in Yemen because of the Yemeni government's preoccupation with its own more pressing issues, namely a full-blown rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Another reason the Yemeni government tolerates the group's presence may be because the jihadi fighters sometimes assist Yemeni forces in military operations against the rebels, a Western diplomat said – all of which make the precarious state a potential haven for militants.

"In Yemen there is great potential for [AQAP] to take advantage of undergoverned spaces to regroup, plot, and prepare for attacks against US and Western targets in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the region," says Christopher Boucek, author of a September report on Yemen called "Avoiding a Downward Spiral."

The Saudi government, which shares a long, rugged border with Yemen, is extremely concerned about its neighbor's internal turmoil.

"Yemen is the backyard of Saudi security," says Mustafa Alani, a counterterrorism expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. "The Saudis look at Yemen and see separatism, sectarianism, terrorism, so they have genuine concerns."

Yemen: A terrorist haven?

In an effort to stop further deterioration, the Saudi government is publicly "standing 100 percent behind" the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, says Mr. Alani. "They think it must be supported despite all its shortcomings."

The kingdom has been the second-largest contributor – after the United States – to an international appeal for humanitarian aid in Saada, where an estimated 150,000 Yemenis have been displaced from their homes because of ongoing fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels.

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