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Diplomacy in Action

Briefing on Yemen

Special Briefing
Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Washington, DC
January 25, 2010


MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Department of State. This week Secretary Clinton will travel to London. She’ll leave tomorrow night and will participate on Wednesday in an international meeting on Yemen, and then Thursday at the international conference on Afghanistan.


But I thought to kind of put our current relationship with Yemen into context and the ongoing efforts to work with Yemen on security, we thought it would be a good time to bring to the briefing room Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism here at the State Department Dan Benjamin, just to give a little background on this. And I’m sure you might have some questions on activities over the weekend as well.


So with that, we’ll start off with Dan Benjamin.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Thanks very much P.J. I’ll be brief. As you know, there’s been a great deal of discussion about Yemen since the December 25th conspiracy. The Secretary will be discussing Yemen, along with 21 other – leaders from 21 other countries later this week at the conference in London. Obviously, she views this as being an enormously important matter and is missing the State of the Union for that reason.


There was a lot of Yemen-related activity last week. Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman and I both testified on matters in Yemen. In fact, I testified multiple times. The Yemeni foreign minister was here last week and had a very good meeting with the Secretary.


I think it’s important to underscore a few points about what is going on in our relationship with Yemen. First of all, it is very much a two-prong strategy we have. There’s been a lot of attention paid to the work we’re doing with the Yemeni Government to increase its ability to take care of its own security threats and to take on, in particular, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That is vitally important.


But we also know that if we’re going to have a sustainable long-term engagement with Yemen, if we’re going to deal with the threats that it faces and that we face as well, it’s going to require a sustained engagement to deal with that country’s very serious economic problems, particularly the depletion of natural resources. It’s got serious demographic challenges – water, a depleting water table, and also its governance problems and social issues. And so our assistance is very much aimed at doing that as well. We can talk about it a little more in detail if you like.


I should say that we are very pleased by the strong stance that President Salih and his government have taken in terms of confronting al-Qaida, particularly since the December 17th engagements, operations that have continued through until this month. But I should also note that this is not – it may appear on the surface to be a suddenly new involvement in things Yemeni for the United States. But in fact, this Administration has been engaged on Yemen really since the very beginning. The new Administration came in and recognized early on that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was gaining strength and was going to pose a significant terrorist threat and ordered up a comprehensive policy review to ensure that we were using all the tools at our power to deal with the terrorist threat there. That review was completed in the fall. We have been talking to the Yemenis consistently. As you know, Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan has visited twice and has been a regular interlocutor with the leadership there. General Petraeus has been there, Secretary Feltman, and so on.


Al-Qaida in Yemen is certainly not a new phenomenon in itself. In fact, al-Qaida in the region really appeared before we even used the term “al-Qaida.” Probably the first attack ever carried out by people inspired by Usama bin Ladin happened in December of 1992; that is, while the first President Bush was still in office, and involved a hotel in Aden in which U.S. troops were staying as they were going and coming from Somalia. Fortunately, no Americans were killed in that attack, although I believe two other individuals were.


I should just – returning to the State Department, I should note that the – that our designation – the Secretary’s designation of al-Qaida as a Foreign Terrorist Organization became official last week. It was – the ball was actually rolling on that long, long before December 25th. It’s a very –


I’m sorry?


QUESTION: Do you mean AQAP?




QUESTION: You said al-Qaida.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Sorry, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The – she actually signed the documents that would trigger the congressional notifications and that we use as a basis for going to the UN to make this a designation under UN Security Council Resolution 1267, well before the 25th. And we’re pleased that this group and its top two leaders have been designated there as well.


So, with that, why don’t I stop? And I will – as P.J., mentioned, there’s been a lot of other activity in the terrorism areas, and so I’m happy to answer your questions.


QUESTION: Can I just – when he was here last week, the Yemeni foreign minister pretty much put the blame on everyone but him and his government for things that are going wrong there. He complained about aid not getting through from the previous pledging conference. And I’m just wondering, do you agree with that assessment?


MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of his remarks, and I would say that a week or two before that I was actually on CNN with him – he from Sanaa and I from Washington. And he acknowledged his own government’s blame for not always keeping al-Qaida front and center as it’s dealt with a number of different security challenges. But I would say that the 2006 donors conference at the time seemed quite successful, but it is true, in fact, that a lot of that money has not been delivered. So there is a real issue there. And it is probably also true that, with a lot of other things going on in the international community and a lot of other countries in need of assistance, Yemen may have not gotten all the attention from the international community that it deserved at various points.


QUESTION: So you would then agree with his assessment and you –


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: No, I would say that there’s – he had – there was certainly some truth in what he was saying.


QUESTION: His words were pretty strong. I mean, if you go back and look at the transcript, I mean, he basically said that President Salih had made courageous decisions on reform and that they were basically getting screwed by the international community. So --


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I was standing there and that wasn’t the sense I had of it, but I’m not going to quibble with you over that. What I would say is that the international community made a number of commitments to Yemen and they haven’t always been delivered, and Yemenis, as we know, have also sometimes made commitments and haven’t always fallen – followed through on those. So the important thing is that the government’s doing the right thing now, and we want to use that as a basis for going forward.






QUESTION: A couple of things. Can you flesh out more about the conference itself and what the division of dealing – helping Yemen deal with its counterterrorism problem versus helping build the kind of long-term, stable state that – you know, with social and economic development? I mean, what’s going to be the division of labor at the conference?


And then also, as you see what’s going on in Yemen – not that you haven’t been paying attention to it before, but there are also other kind of states in the region and elsewhere that are considered, I guess, failed states or weak states and could have an opportunity for al-Qaida to flourish. And I was wondering if there was any more attention – consideration being given in the Department about how you have to do more preventative counterterrorism than kind of reactive. Thanks.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Let me take the second question first. One of the problems that you face in – when fighting terrorism is that terrorists are usually not defending a lot of territory and are quite mobile. And part of the reason that AQAP has become a more potent threat in recent years is that Saudi Arabia did such a superb job in ramping up its counterterrorism efforts in the wake of the May 2003 attacks there. And as a result, really al-Qaida within Saudi Arabia was put out of business for quite a while and has not really been heard from in some time. But a number of the most dangerous operatives did move from Saudi Arabia to Yemen and sort of swelled the ranks of the AQAP core there.


So we’re always going to face that problem of mobility, and Yemen had some attractions for the terrorists because of its geography and also because the multiplicity of different actors in their domestic politics – the power of tribes, the fact that some areas are more governed than others – that was one of the things that was attractive.


Now, the one country, obviously, that we’re really concerned about in this when it comes to weak governance or non-governance is Somalia, and that obviously is an enormous challenge for us, as it has been since the government collapsed there decades ago. And we continue to work to strengthen the TFG, the Transitional Federal Government, and to work with Somalia’s neighbors to ensure that any terrorism does not bleed out from there.


If you look at the other countries right around there, certainly on the Arabian Peninsula, there aren’t any weak states of note; at least none are coming to my mind. But we always have to worry about the possibility of un- or under-governed areas becoming safe havens, and I think prevention is very much what this Administration is about. And if you go back, for example, to the Secretary’s development speech, if you go back to John Brennan’s speech on counterterrorism in which he talked about the upstream factors that contribute to the terrorist phenomenon, one of them is weak governance. And it is absolutely true that we’re focusing on that quite seriously. There are a number of different programs going on. Border security is a big issue for us in my particular office but also in other offices in the State Department and in DOD and elsewhere around the government. So we are looking at that.


Now, on your first question, as I understand it, and I’m standing ready to be corrected by P.J., the meeting itself will be two hours, and this is going to be of the nature of a kickoff in an effort to consolidate a lot of the different concerns that have been voiced and the initiatives that are being taken right now, and then the real brass tacks work will continue in a number of working groups that are going to be created there in the next month or so. Because of the quickness with which – the rapidity with which this came up and the fact that we have the Afghanistan conference as well, it’s not really the place where there’s going to be a lot of detail work done.


But this is very important for marshaling international support and making sure that this effort gets off to a good start.


QUESTION: The Secretary, when she’s talked about Yemen, said in the past that the Yemeni Government would be held to specific – there would be requirements imposed on it, that we’re not just sort of ready to hand over aid without looking for something in return. Can you talk a little bit about what specifically we’re looking for them to do that they aren’t doing now?


And if you can go back to the 2006 conference, this $5 billion or whatever it was that was pledged, what in fact was holding it up? Is it – was it concern – was it that the government simply didn’t produce the money that they promised? Or was it concern that the Yemeni Government was somehow going to misuse that money once it made it to the ground? And if it’s the latter, are those concerns gone now, or do we still have some concerns about how they might use the money?


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, I confess I wasn’t in government in 2006 or in the immediate aftermath, but my understanding is that a lot of that had to do with a certain amount of donor fatigue, the concurrent claims of Iraq, Afghanistan, and a number of other places, and clearly, December 25th had an electrifying impact and made the international community, many members of the international community, think that this was a time to get past the excuses and get back to work.


There – to be quite frank, there have been questions at times about the Government of Yemen’s absorptive capacity. And that is something that we monitor carefully and that the other donors will be monitoring carefully, and one of the key things that we hope will come out of this is the kind of coordination that leads to non-duplication, and to ensuring that resources are being targeted where they can be productively used.


Now, the Secretary’s remarks – it’s important to note, first of all, that most of our – virtually all of our assistance to Yemen outside of the security sector goes straight to NGOs and other actors in the country who are on the ground and who can put these funds to good work. I’m sure that what the Secretary meant was a continued engagement on the threats that we’re very concerned about – AQAP – but also that these resources go towards the kind of development goals that we know that will produce stability in Yemen and a basis for a stronger government that can deal with the critical problems it faces.


I think it would be premature to lay out a grid of benchmarks or anything like that, but obviously, as with all of our assistance, we’ll be watching carefully how it will be used.


QUESTION: Can I ask another one? Can you talk – we’ve heard a little bit about it, but could you talk about – the Saudis are claiming that Iran has a big hand in what’s going on in some of these conflicts in Yemen not only with the Houthis, but perhaps supporting al-Qaida? Is there any evidence to support those claims?


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: We do not have independent confirmation of Iranian engagement in Yemen, in the Houthi conflict or, as far as I know, anywhere else. But I know that most of the attention has been to the contention that the Iranians were supporting the Houthis.


QUESTION: So you think it’s just black market kind of – Yemen, I know, is like, really kind of bazaar of weapons. But I mean, who’s arming --




QUESTION: Who’s arming these people? Where are they getting their support if not from a country like Iran? Is it just kind of the black market bazaar in Yemen where they’re getting their --


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Yemen has for a long time been one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. And if there are additional weapons making their way into the country, I don’t know that we have identified a single state backing them. Frankly, I don’t have anything on that, but --




AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: -- there are a lot of weapons in Yemen.


QUESTION: Can I ask a non-Yemen question?




QUESTION: Back in September of last year, there was – there were some threats reported in South Africa, the embassies – Embassy and consulates closed down. And I’m just wondering, did that – did anything ever – was anything ever resolved on that? And are there any concerns about the World Cup?


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: There – I remember it and I remember the outcome, and I know that the issues were sufficiently resolved that after the Embassy closed, it was reopened because the security concerns had been dealt with. What precisely happened and – is something that if you want to follow up with me afterward, we can find out exactly what happened.


As for the World Cup, we know that all --


QUESTION: Was it at all related? It wasn’t related, was it? World Cup and what was – what –


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: No, it was not directly related to the World Cup. I mean, it was well in advance of the World Cup --


QUESTION: Right. Right.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: -- so I assume it would not be.


All large-scale sporting events are – because they bring so much of the international community together, because they’re high profile, because there’s an enormous amount of press attention – get extra concern as possible targets. I know that the South Africans are taking this very seriously. There have been discussions between many different security institutions and the South Africans, and I know that they’re working hard to ensure that it’ll be a safe tournament.


QUESTION: You’re not aware of any outstanding threat against the (inaudible).


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I’m not aware of anything of a very serious nature.


QUESTION: What about the threat to the – sorry. What about the threat to the Embassy in Yemen? I mean, I know that it’s still a very high-risk area, but have the kind of huge threats surrounding U.S. interests in Yemen that we saw at Christmas – are you a little bit less –


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: It remains a pretty challenging security environment for the Embassy. There’s no question about that. And the insecurity in Yemen wasn’t built up – wasn’t created in a day or a week, and we know that it won’t be resolved overnight. But if you recall, I think the Government of Yemen put out an explanation at the time of either the operation on the 17th or the 24th suggesting that it was dealing directly with some of the threats that were at hand and that it had disrupted that operation.




QUESTION: I have one just kind of broad question. If you could kind of bring us up to speed on your understanding of, kind of, the situation in Yemen with regard to AQAP, and specifically with reports over the past year of it becoming an increasing safe haven, as opposed to the Af-Pak border region, and then people making that transition over to the lawless areas of Yemen?


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I’m not aware of a lot of people going from – that is to say a migration from the FATA to Yemen. What is true is that there are a number of areas of Yemen that are, shall we say, under-governed, and they have been attractive regions to militants for a long, long time. And as I mentioned before, we’ve seen a migration of extremists from Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly, there have been others, but this is predominantly a Yemeni/Saudi group, AQAP. And it has managed to do a pretty good job at recruiting from within as well, and as a result, the threat has grown. That’s really the core of it.


QUESTION: And then to follow on that, if you could kind of give us your sense of the coordination between Al-Shabaab and its activities inside Yemen, especially in the Aden region.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: I’m sorry, Al-Shabaab and?


QUESTION: And, inside Yemen and how they’re trying to grow into, kind of – especially the area around Aden. What’s your assessment of how that’s progressing?


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: We have seen connections between Al-Shabaab and al-Qaida in East Africa. We have not seen an enormous amount of Al-Shabaab activity in Yemen. There is – there are a lot of Somali refugees in Yemen, to be sure. Most of those refugees are fleeing the kind of chaos that Al-Shabaab creates. So, obviously it’s of great concern when you have thriving al-Qaida or al-Qaida affiliates on both sides of the Red Sea, but we haven’t really seen a lot of evidence of that hookup yet.


QUESTION: And then just, on the other way, I guess going back the other way with arms going back across to the Horn, is – are you seeing that increasing, or –


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Again, Somalia is a country that has so many weapons, I’m not sure that whatever’s going across the straits there is making a big difference.


QUESTION: Speaking of Somalia, the last administration had made a – or at least Jendayi Frazer had spoken about putting Eritrea on the list of state sponsors. Is that going anywhere?


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: We are not on the moment working on that. I believe – correct me if I’m wrong – that Eritrea is listed as non-cooperating --


QUESTION: Not fully cooperating.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Not fully cooperating --


QUESTION: Yeah. But –


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: -- on some CT issues. But we haven’t taken it beyond that, and we feel that’s the right place right now in terms of working with the Eritreans to resolve some of our issues.


QUESTION: Are you actually working with the Eritreans? My understanding was that they pretty much weren’t interested.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: They’re not the most communicative people on earth. Let’s – let me be -- (laughter).




QUESTION: So – well, wait. So where does that leave it right now? Where --


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Well, we haven’t stopped communicating to them.




QUESTION: Dan, on – Usama bin Ladin’s claim on this tape that he –


AMBASSADOR BENJAIM: I was wondering when that was going to come up.


QUESTION: Yeah. That he was responsible and he masterminded and – the Christmas Day attack. Do you believe this to be true? Do you see a lot of coordination between, like, al-Qaida – AQAP, and the kind of al-Qaida proper, or do you think that this is kind of jealousy or kind of posturing for power?


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: If you look at the text, he doesn’t actually say that he was behind it. And he’s doing what, for bin Laden, is sort of a tried-and-true strategy of associating himself with it and, in that way, sort of trying to get some of the reflected glory of the moment, if you can call it that. But in terms of the relationship between AQAP and the FATA, it’s probably tighter than it is between al-Qaida senior leadership and any of the other affiliates, but that doesn't mean that there was command and control by any means. And I think that we would characterize the role of the senior leadership in this context as being mostly about broad guidelines, general targeting priorities, things like that, and generally sort of pushing out an exhortation to do something, particularly because the pressure on the group in the FATA is so great. So I think that’s really what it’s about. You know bin Ladin’s been trying to put his fingerprints on just about everything that’s happened for years, and in that regard I think we’re kind of used to it.




QUESTION: Thank you.


AMBASSADOR BENJAMIN: Sure, my pleasure.

PRN: 2010/099

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