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Time for Saleh To Go?

Yemen heats up.

9:00 AM, Mar 23, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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One of them is Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani. In 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department and United Nations added Zindani to their lists of persons affiliated with al Qaeda. The Treasury Department explained that Zindani “has a long history of working with [Osama] bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders,” recruited for al Qaeda’s training camps, helped purchase weapons for al Qaeda, and served as a contact for Ansar al Islam (an Iraqi al Qaeda affiliate), among other nefarious activities.

In response to the designations, Saleh did the opposite of what the international community demanded. In 2005, the year after Zindani’s designation, the cleric traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of Saleh’s official delegation. And in its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2007, the State Department noted that: “Yemen continued to take no action to bar [Zindani’s] travel or freeze his assets in compliance with its UN obligations. Throughout the year, President Saleh continued to voice public support for al Zindani and his Al Iman University.”

In his interviews with the Yemeni press, Ambassador Feierstein has openly worried about Zindani rising to power. Zindani “is on the terrorism list both of the United States and the United Nations,” Feierstein noted in his press conference with reporters, “and so would we have a problem if he were elected President, absolutely...”

But the administration’s de facto man in Yemen, President Saleh, has done nothing to curb Zindani’s activities any way. And any notion that Saleh could keep Zindani in his box was disproven early on in Yemen’s uprising when Zindani promised, “An Islamic state is coming.” Zindani added that Saleh “came to power by force, and stayed in power by force, and the only way to get rid of him is through the force of the people.”

Thus, after years of protection, Zindani rewarded Saleh with open threats.

Saleh’s counterterrorism cooperation has been uneven in other areas too. For example, al Qaeda terrorists, including current AQAP leaders and some who participated in the USS Cole bombing, have basically walked out of Yemeni prisons. In some cases, Saleh’s government openly allowed them to walk; in other cases, it looked the other way when they did.

Saleh has undoubtedly provided some significant help in the fight against al Qaeda. Yemeni government forces have battled al Qaeda fighters. Saleh has provided cover for unpopular American airstrikes. And Saleh’s regime has provided actionable intelligence on al Qaeda’s operations.

But this assistance has come with a price (hundreds of millions of dollars in funds for counterterrorism efforts and humanitarian aid) and a cost (a deteriorating security situation coupled with ever increasing anti-Americanism).

The Obama administration needs to play a constructive role, as much as it can, in guiding Yemen’s political future. America’s influence may very well be limited, but that doesn’t mean the administration should stick to the same failing policy. President Saleh is Yemen’s past. And the more he stays in the present, the less America will have to say about Yemen’s future.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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