SANA'A // Yemen is struggling to cut off international funding flowing into extremist groups operating inside its borders, including the increasing presence of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, the country's top diplomat said yesterday. In an exclusive interview, Abu Bakr al Qirbi, Yemen's foreign minister, told The National such groups as al Qa'eda were recruiting followers by exploiting the country's poverty, the highest in the Arab world, and its high unemployment, which is around 35 per cent.
"Unfortunately, as we have always said, radicalisation has taken advantage of the economic situation, the poverty, unemployment of young university graduates," he said. Fear that Yemen has become a breeding ground for violent Islamist ideologies was brought to the fore following a failed attack on a Detroit-bound US jetliner on Christmas Day. The accused would-be suicide bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a Nigerian, is widely believed to have prepared for the mission in Yemen with help from al Qa'eda.
But Mr al Qirbi insisted important strides had been made to halt extremist activities, including efforts to choke off their funding - much of which is believed to come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. "The transfers of any funds into Yemen are examined by the Central Bank, and we keep an eye on people travelling into Yemen who might also bring this money," he said, while admitting the authorities still had not perfected the system. "As far as financial support, this is always a problem," Mr al Qirbi added. "And as with al Qa'eda, how to trace the funding of such organisations and how to drain them of those funds - it's proved very difficult, in spite of a lot of measures that have been taken in Yemen and internationally."
In December, parliament passed an anti-terrorism law targeting money laundering and fundraising by militant groups. Yemen is facing crises on multiple fronts. Water supplies and oil exports, the government's main source of income, are both rapidly diminishing. Malnutrition and unemployment rates are also alarmingly high. In addition to al Qa'eda, the government is struggling to put down Shiite rebels in the northern Sa'ada governorate, known as the Houthis, while also trying to control rising secessionist fervour in the south.
Mr al Qirbi suggested that Yemen's frequently gridlocked parliament had contributed to growing public apathy toward the government. But claims of pervasive corruption in government, which many see as inhibiting the emergence of bonafide political parties, and causing citizens to in turn vent their frustrations by other means, were not entirely accurate, he said. "Sometimes I think corruption is overplayed, but I'm not saying there is no corruption."
While not denying that Yemen could become a failed state, Mr al Qirbi questioned whether the government had the resources to extend its remit across the country's largely lawless and fiercely tribal territories. "We have a rather ambitious programme for judicial reforms in Yemen, and we want to extend government rule in all parts of the country," he said. "What does that require? It requires lots of financial resources. If I tell you there are 150,000 cities and villages in Yemen, and we assume that we need only one policeman in each of them, you can imagine the amount of funds that requires.
"This is the problem in Yemen - we have over 23 million people scattered over 150,000 communities, whereas in Egypt, which has three times our population, its 50,000 communities are located along the Nile. Our villages and cities are scattered across mountains and deserts." But the minister, 62, who studied in the UK, expressed hope of a breakthrough with the Houthi fighters, in part because the exhausted, six-year rebellion was ready to accept the government's conditions for peace.
"The majority of [conditions] put on them by the government have been accepted, but we hope the few stumbling blocks in the plan have been addressed, and we hope the Houthis will show goodwill and accept that plan," he said. Saleh Qarsha, thde head of the mediation committee attempting to broker a deal, said yesterday that some progress in the dialogue between the government and the rebels has been made. He said Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, had accepted that the Houthis should be represented on the committees overseeing the implementation of a peace agreement.
"The president's condition was that roads should be opened as a step for ceasefire," Mr Qarsha added. The Yemeni government announced on Saturday a timetable for the implementation of a ceasefire, after the rebels who have been fighting a sporadic war since 2004 accepted six conditions for an end to the fighting. The details of the timetable were transmitted to Abdul Malik al Houthi, the rebel leader, through Mr Qarsha.
The government conditions include withdrawal from official buildings and abandoning military posts in the mountains, reopening roads in the north, returning weapons seized from security services, freeing all military and civilian prisoners, including Saudis, respecting the law and the constitution, and pledging not to attack Saudi Arabia. However, sounding less optimistic about the south, Mr al Qirbi said the president and the government would welcome further dialogue with the secessionist movement if it occurred "under the umbrella of the constitution and unity".
In 1990, a union between the Marxist-led south and tribal-dominated north was reached. However, the deal between the People's General Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party fell apart and a political crisis developed, which led to civil war in 1994. The socialists were crushed by the army of the present president, Mr Saleh, and since then, the south has long decried neglect and overbearing tactics by the government in Sana'a, Yemen's capital.
The recent jailing of secessionist leaders and opposition journalists in the south, appears to have deepened antipathy towards the government. The government is also facing a problem with the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an opposition coalition of six parties which includes the Islamist Islah and socialist parties. The JMP is calling for a national dialogue that would include the Houthis and the southern movement leaders. A prerequisite for this dialogue should be an end to the war in Sa'ada and releasing all southern secessionist activists from jails.
Mr al Qirbi accused the JMP of overreacting, saying that they "have been obstructive for no obvious reasons, really, except for some claims and demands." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com