10:02pm

Wed December 1, 2010
Middle East

WikiLeaks Yemen Cables Could Embolden Al-Qaida

A handful of the diplomatic cables released by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks this week focused on Yemen. Intelligence officials worry that the leaked dispatches could end up helping al-Qaida's arm in Yemen with its recruitment efforts. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, has criticized the Yemeni government, saying it is corrupt and insufficiently Islamic, and the cables, at least on a cursory level, could be seen as bearing that out.

Two of the cables in particular could provide some trouble for the Yemeni government. One describes a meeting between Gen. David Petraeus and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and another chronicles a conversation about whiskey smuggling.

The first is based on a meeting between the general and the Yemeni president in January, just weeks after the U.S. had launched two airstrikes in Yemen. The target of the strikes had been members of AQAP. And the attacks proved to be controversial because there were civilian casualties.

The cable is a bit embarrassing for Saleh because it suggests that his government deliberately misled the Yemeni people and its parliament into thinking the December strikes were American missiles fired by the Yemeni government. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," the cable quotes Saleh as telling Petraeus. Then one of his aides interrupts and jokes about Saleh lying to his own parliament about the strikes.

"This is something that won't necessarily surprise a great many people within the elite circles in Yemen," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. "But when you get outside, in some of the tribal areas where al-Qaida is really attempting to recruit people, having something like this where the president and his ministers are on the record talking about lying and deceiving parliament and the Yemeni public, I think it will have traction. Al-Qaida will be able to use it in the months to come."

And, as the U.S. tries to mitigate the damage the release of the cables has wrought, the Yemen dispatches may be one of the few places where the WikiLeaks release had negative consequences -– specifically by providing more fodder for al-Qaida's recruitment efforts in Yemen and abroad.

Another cable describes an exchange between the Yemeni president and the Obama administration's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan. The Yemeni president complains about smuggling from a nearby country, Djibouti. But he says his chief concern is the illegal flow of drugs and weapons, not whiskey -- "provided it's good whiskey," he says. Then he laughs.

Whiskey, like all alcoholic beverages, is forbidden by Islam. And Saleh's apparent lighthearted attitude again plays into al-Qaida's hands. In late 2009, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula actually executed a Yemeni government official for smuggling whiskey into the country.

"One of the issues that AQAP has had with Yemeni government is that it claims over and over that the Yemen government doesn't uphold Shariah law," says Princeton's Johnsen. "So for them to be able to position the president as someone who drinks whiskey, who jokes about whiskey, this will really fit seamlessly into the narrative they have been peddling for the past several years."

Al-Qaida won't need to do much to get its latest message about Saleh and his government out to the people of Yemen and beyond, says Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says the comments will come up in what is basically the Yemeni equivalent of England's afternoon tea: the ritual khat chews.

Yemenis chew a stimulant called khat every afternoon. Men gather in large halls, chew the leaves and branches of the plant and then share the news of the day and talk politics.

"The fact that every day, there is a built-in block of hours during khat chews for people to get together and talk and discuss, means this message will get out there," Boucek said. "I am sure this will be the essential part of discussions for khat chews for the coming weeks."

The conversation is unlikely to be a faithful account as to what the WikiLeaks cables really say. Boucek says Yemenis wouldn't understand that the cables are supposed to be some accurate record of a diplomatic meeting.

"I doubt very many Yemenis are going to appreciate that this is how the State Department does business," he said. "But that's not really the point. The point is this portrays a relationship that most Yemenis are ready to believe and this backs up those suspicions" -- rampant suspicions that the Yemeni government is doing America's bidding and that the U.S. has been stepping up its presence there. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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