Monday, 2 April 2012

My interview with Amb Gerald Feierstein - media reaction

There has been some interest in the interview I conducted last week with the US Amb to Yemen, Mr. Gerald Feierstien. Here I list some of the reaction I found in the non-Arabic media (especially Yemen, Iran and Israel, plus Reuters)

U.S. says Iran active in north, south Yemen -report
Sun Mar 25, 2012 12:52pm GMT Print | Single Page [-] Text [+]
DUBAI (Reuters) - Washington believes Iran is working with Shi'ite Muslim rebels in northern Yemen and secessionists in the country's south to expand its influence at the expense of Yemen's Gulf neighbours, the U.S. envoy to Sanaa was quoted as saying on Sunday.

The pan-Arab daily al-Hayat cited Gerald Feierstein, in an interview in London, as accusing Lebanon's Hezbollah and Hamas of helping their backers in Shi'ite Iran at the expense of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a bloc in which Sunni-led oil giant Saudi Arabia's influence is dominant.

"The Iranians want to build influence in Yemen... both internally and more broadly in the region by establishing a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula," the paper quoted Feierstein as saying in remarks published in Arabic.

"It's something that's naturally regarded as a security threat to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC states."

Feierstein told Reuters in an interview last month that there were signs of greater Iranian activity in Yemen, but did not specify where and how.

"There is evidence that Hezbollah and Hamas support this Iranian effort. We are aware of a southern Yemeni presence in Beirut that has been used as a conduit for Iranian support for obstruction in southern Yemen," he said.

A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Yemen did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment on the published remarks.

Feierstein was referring to the resurgence of secessionist sentiment in the south, formerly a separate socialist republic which fought a civil war with the north in 1994 after four turbulent years of formal political union.

That sentiment, based in charges of economic and political marginalisation, gained strength in the final years of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule, and the south saw a boycott of a vote last month to replace Saleh with his deputy.

That election was a key to a transition deal, crafted by the GCC with U.S. and U.N. endorsement to avert civil war after mass protests against Saleh turned into fighting among a divided military and territorial gains by the country's al Qaeda wing.

Feierstein said the group had benefited from Yemen's political turmoil, but could be defeated by a reunited Yemeni military. The U.S. has backed units of the military led by Saleh's relatives as part of its campaign against al Qaeda, which has plotted abortive attacks abroad from Yemen.

"If we solve some of the political problems that created chaos in the Yemeni military, we will have improved the possibility of succeeding in our initiatives against al Qaeda," he said.

Washington has carried out a campaign of drone strikes - including one last year to assassinate a U.S. citizen it claims played a role in plotting an attack - against alleged al Qaeda members in Yemen.

Its top "counter-terrorism" official has made co-ordination with a united Yemeni military a priority in relations with the administration of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. An attack claimed by al Qaeda killed at least 26 people hours after Hadi was sworn in, vowing to fight the group.

Feierstein refused to comment when queried about the present U.S. role in airstrikes earlier this month that killed dozens in areas of south Yemen controlled by an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group.

"I can say that we are working closely with the security institutions of the Yemeni government regarding counter-terrorism initiatives, specifically those aimed at defeating al Qaeda," he was quoted as saying.

(Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)

© Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved

Citing great concern over Islah Zindani presence U.S. envoy to Yemen: resolving chaos in military needed to counter al-Qaeda
Posted in: Front Page 
Written By: Shuaib M. al-Mosawa
Article Date: Mar 31, 2012 - 8:14:17 PM
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The Yemeni political turmoil during the past year has emboldened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to further its control over more territories, said the U.S. ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein.

 In an interview with the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat on March 25, Feierstein said that the splits within the Yemeni military institution represent an obstacle to the implementation of a successful campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

 U.S. officials have repeatedly called for a unified Yemeni army. Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor had criticized defected generals who sided with the anti-government protesters, namely the defected General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, and called them “to set aside their political agendas, and to do what’s in the best interest of the Yemeni people, and that the time has come for the Yemeni military to be able to be a unified, disciplined, and professional organization.” 

Feierstein said that “If we solve some of the political problems that created chaos in the Yemeni military, we will have improved the possibility of succeeding in our initiatives against al Qaeda.” 

 He said that the Somalis comprised the majority among multinational jihadists reported to have come to Yemen to support AQAP.  Regarding the southern separation sentiment, he said: “We saw that this issue has been solved in 1990 when the country was unified in 1994. 

The United States has clearly supported maintaining the unity of Yemen, and our position remains the same today.” Feierstein said that though the U.S. administration enjoys good relations with the Islah Party, it has some concerns over some of Islah members linked to al-Qaeda. 

“On the other hand, there are elements of the Islah and namely Abdul Majeed al-Zindani identified by the United Nations as a supporter of terrorism, which we have great concern about it.

 We have been clear to raise these concerns with the leadership of the Islah Party and we were clear with them that the presence of Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, his supporters, and his followers in the party is causing a problem for us and the rest of the international community,” Feierstein added. After keeping a low profile over the past couple of years, al-Zindani, designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a global terror, has jumped into the spotlight again when he sided with the protesters last year, calling for establishing an Islamic Caliphate.

US envoy claims Iran helps Yemeni rebels

The US ambassador to Yemen has accused Iran of trying to destabilize Yemen by supporting separatists and fighters in the south and north of the country.

"The Iranians want to build influence in Yemen... both internally and more broadly in the region by establishing a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula," Gerald Feierstein said in an interview with daily al-Hayat in London on Sunday. 

He claimed that Iran's influence in Yemen is “naturally regarded as a security threat” by Saudi Arabia and other members of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. 

"There is evidence that Hezbollah and Hamas support this Iranian effort. We are aware of a southern Yemeni presence in Beirut that has been used as a conduit for Iranian support for obstruction in southern Yemen," he alleged. 

Feierstein had also told Reuters in an interview last month that there were signs of greater Iranian activity in Yemen, but did not specify where and how. 

The US ambassador’s accusations against Iran come at the time when Feierstein himself faces growing public calls to leave Yemen. 

Yemenis accuse him of being actually in charge in Yemen and of working to transfer power from unpopular deposed Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to his vice president in a single-candidate vote also backed by Saudi Arabia. 

Yemenis see this contrary to their demands for real democracy, accusing the US ambassador of returning dictatorship to their country. 

People in Yemen also accuse the US of bombing civilians as Washington carries out military operations it claims are aimed at fighting al-Qaeda militants. 


Arab World: Taking note of Yemen

03/29/2012 22:07

The US is waking up to Iran’s support for Shi’ite rebels and its attempts to gain influence through proxy warfare.

Photo by: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

In a notable shift in the US public stance, Washington’s Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein this week accused Iran of supporting Shi’ite Houthi rebels in north Yemen and separatist elements in the south of the country. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have long maintained that north Yemen constitutes an additional front in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s region-wide attempt to build regional influence through aiding proxy forces. Until now the US had remained agnostic on this point.

The Houthi insurgency has been under way in north Yemen since 2004. The Houthi clan, based in the Saada province of north Yemen, are Zaidis, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The rebels are Islamist. Their stated aim is the establishment of an “Imamate” in Yemen, to replace what they regard as the illegitimate regime of of president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his successors.

They number tens of thousands of fighters, and in 2009 fought a bloody and inconclusive series of battles with Saudi forces who sought and failed to destroy the insurgency.

US officials until now had been wont to say that while it was theoretically possible that Tehran might support the Shia Houthi insurgents battling the Sana’a government, no actual evidence had emerged to establish that this was the case. They are not saying this anymore. What has shifted? 

First of all, it is worth noting that Feierstein’s public remarks this week are not the first indication of a changing American view with regard to Iranian support for the Houthis. On March 15, The New York Times quoted an un-named senior US official (probably Feierstein himself) on this matter.

The nameless official specifically accused the Iranians of dispatching a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps to aid the Houthis. This force, according to the official, was using small boats to smuggle assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to the rebels.

In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat this week, Ambassador Feierstein broadened and clarified the US position. He asserted that Washington possesses “evidence that the Iranians provide military assistance and training” both to the Shia Houthi rebels in the north and to a separatist insurgency in the south of the country. The Iranians, Feierstein suggested, seek to prevent an orderly transition of power following Saleh’s resignation.

More broadly, said the US ambassador, Teheran wants to build “influence and impact on the developments in Yemen through gaining influence internally or in the wider region by establishing a foothold in Arabia, a matter that is normally seen as a security threat to Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.”

Asked whether the Iranians provide this support to the Yemeni insurgencies directly or via proxies, Feierstein replied that “available evidence” confirmed that both Hezbollah and Hamas support the Iranian “role and effort.” He particularly noted the presence of southern Yemenis in Beirut who act as a conduit for Iranian support to the separatist insurgency in the south.

Feierstein’s interview was significant on a number of levels. Firstly, US ambassadors do not simply take it upon themselves to suddenly announce to the media a significant shift in the American understanding of events. The increasingly public US acknowledgement of the Iranian- Saudi cold war in the region, and more broadly of Iranian attempts to build political influence through the activation of proxies, is part of the more generally hardening US stance toward Iran.

It represents a growing awareness on the part of the US administration that its allies in this region – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates – were not simply engaging in paranoid fantasy when they sought to warn US emissaries of the dangers of Iranian political and proxy warfare to the regional order.

Feierstein in public this week sounded like the Saudi and Israeli officials whose private talks with their US counterparts were revealed by Wikileaks. The awareness of and concern at Iran’s adroit use of proxy forces to stir the regional cauldron and build power and influence was the point of commonality.

Whether this growing awareness will produce a corresponding shift in the administration’s currently somewhat rudderless regional policy remains to be seen.

Secondly, the remarks reflect real and justified US worry regarding the chaotic situation in Yemen. Even prior to the political unrest of 2011, the country was reeling under the impact of three separate insurgent movements (the Houthis, the southern separatists and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP). In addition, Yemen faced a serious water crisis, growing lawlessness, tribal defiance of the central authorities outside of Sana’a and dwindling oil supplies.

This situation has now been vastly complicated by Saleh’s departure and moves toward political reform. In Yemen, as elsewhere, the departure of the military dictator has not brought a smooth transition to a new political order. Rather, Islamist forces have moved to exploit the vacuum.

As Saleh’s forces sought to maintain control of the capital last year, the Houthis, who professed support for the anti-government uprising, expanded their area of control from Saada to al-Jawf and parts of Hajjah governates.

Some Yemeni officials believe that the goal of the Houthis is to take the Midi seaport in the Hajja governate. If this fell into their hands, it would open up the possibility of a permanent Red Sea route for the transport of Iranian heavy weapons to the insurgents. This, in turn, would make feasible a Houthi push toward the capital, Sana’a. It may well be that this prospect has served to attract the attention of the US administration and induce a sudden clarity.

From an Israeli (and Saudi) point of view, the claim that no evidence existed linking Iran to the Houthis was always a strange and tenuous one. Indications to the contrary have been accumulating in recent years. In October 2009, the Yemeni authorities reported that they had intercepted an Iranian arms carrying vessel on its way to Midi. The Saudi al-Arabiya news network noted a visit by the former South Yemeni president to Beirut, where he petitioned Hezbollah for support for the Houthis and for South Yemeni independence. The Houthis, meanwhile, claim that Saudi Arabia is itself arming Salafi Islamist elements in north Yemen as a means of pressuring them.

North Yemen today constitutes a largely ignored but important arena for the wider regional cold war between Iranian- and Westernaligned blocs. This contest has survived the Arab upheavals of 2011 and is continuing. Ambassador Feierstein’s remarks, meanwhile, show that this reality is becoming harder to deny. Even for those who in the past have found denial of this sort to be a preferred approach to regional policy

Feierstein: Qaeda cannot control Yemen, foreign jihadists flow
2012-03-26 14:08:52 / London - Kamil Attawil

Gerald M. Feierstein 

The US Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald M. Feierstein, stated that the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is too weak to take control of Yemen. But he admitted that the group changed its strategy, and it is now seeking to maintain its dominance over areas and to impose its rule there. 

Mr. Feierstein denied reports that Qaeda leaders in Yemen are assassinated by American security agencies, though he said he hoped that Qaeda in Yemen has a certain location for leadership to gather in, so "life would have been easier". 

The American envoy talked also about Iran and Hezbollah being involved in supporting Houthis and southern secessionists in Yemen. 

Below, is an interview conducted by the London-based al-Hayat Newspaper with Ambassador Gerald Feierstein during his recent visit to London where he participated in the preparatory meeting for Yemen Friends Conference set to be held May in Riyadh. 

How do you see your relations with new government in Yemen? 
Transition of power, in our opinion, started in fact on the 3rd of June, when president Saleh escaped an assassination attempt and his deputy Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi became the acting president. I knew him (Hadi) as a vice-president, but after he commenced his duties as proxy president, we worked with him more closely. Now, we are working with President Hadi and with Prime Minister Basindwah – whom I knew and also worked with while he was an opposition leader – in a very productive way on basic issues of concern to both countries. 

Do you now find any hesitation in cooperating with you after the opposition became a part of the government? 
Quite the contrary. It is safe to say that cooperation in counterterrorism is today the same as it was in the past, if not better. 

Was president Saleh less cooperative? 
It is difficult to compare 10 years of bilateral cooperation under president Saleh's rule with few months under the new government. But I can confirm that cooperation is currently as it was at its best in the past. 

You played a role in pushing president Saleh to step down and to agree on early elections. But since his departure, Qaeda offshoot has begun to expand and strengthen. Don’t you see a correlation between two issues? 
I think AQAP exploited the political crisis during last year. Disputes between political and military leaders led to a decline in their ability to effectively move against Qaeda, which had the opportunity to adopt a more fierce strategy. Therefore, I don't attribute AQAP expansion to the power transfer from president Saleh to President Hadi. But what I think is that Yemen's government and its army lost some capability to respond to AQAP's acts. 

Today, we also see a part of Qaeda strategy, which tries to introduce a view that the transition to new leadership in Yemen has not affected or reduced its ability to violently continue activity, expansion or control. We currently see a definite operation mainly aimed at creating a feeling among Yemenis that the AQAP now can no longer be stopped. 

Do you think that it can be stopped? 
I don't think at all that it cannot be stopped. I think it is indeed weak organization but it exploited exceptional circumstances. In the coming period, effect of initiatives we are working on will come into existence; for example, in the reorganization of security institution, reunification of military units and continuation of political transition. All this will help the government reestablish its authority. And when those initiatives start to yield results, Qaeda's capability to keep taking its current path will decline. 

But don't you think that Qaeda cannot be stopped in reality as long as the Yemeni army is split? 
I think splits within the military institution are an obstacle to a successful campaign against AQAP. But I don't go to say that, even under the current circumstances, there is nothing to do to stop Qaeda. On the contrary, I think we can. By sure, if we solve some political issues that cause tangles in the Yemeni army, we will have developed success potentials in our initiatives against Qaeda. 

When you talk about receiving support from the Yemeni army against al-Qaeda, does this support come from all the Yemeni army including the units that defected from President Saleh? 
All the Yemeni army elements participate in the fight against AQAP. Thus, I believe the answer to your question is Yes. 

It is notable that AQAP has recently changed its strategy. It used to attack and escape to its hideouts in the mountains. Now the organization is seizing control over areas where it imposes its governance. Do you think that al-Qaedastrategy now is to control the whole country, and can it do that? 
I don't think that they can control the country. It is clear that they have changed their strategy because they think there is a good opportunity now. They also want to create a psychological impression that, even if they cannot control the country, they are able to create an atmosphere making Yemenis feel that it is no longer possible to stop AQAP and that they should accordingly accommodate the group and support segments sympathizing with the group within the community. 

How do you explain Qaeda's ability to take full control of areas? Do they get support from certain tribes? 
I think they have some support from Qaeda sympathizers in the Yemeni society, as it is the case for instance in tribal areas of Pakistan or like the situation in Afghanistan. However the AQAP ability to control land is not because of their strength, it is rather a result of 15 months of political crisis that weakened the government's control over its territories. So, AQAP is expanding in space. I believe that if the government and the Yemeni army exert more efforts for pushing Qaeda to retreat, this will succeed and will get support from wider range of Yemeni tribes. We saw for instance what happened in Rada' last January, when Qaeda and its supporters tried to enter the city. What foiled that attempt was the tribal resistance. The same goes for Abyan where we have seen the tribe's clear response against AQAP's attempt to expand. Hence, I think the vast majority of Yemeni tribes are not sympathizing with AQAP, and don't support its ideas, though they need to know that the government is strong and able to spread its sovereignty over its territories. 

Al-Qaeda in Yemen have lost a large number of its leaders in the past few months, by means of strikes launched by planes that are widely thought you are behind. What do you say to these allegations? 
As a rule, we don't comment on such activities and allegations regarding anticipated intelligence operations, that is why I cannot comment on these particular allegations. But what I can say, of course, is that we are working closely with the Yemeni Government's security institution in regard to counterterrorism initiatives, namely those aiming at defeating AQAP and denying its leaders the ability to move in Yemen. This issue is a priority for us and we are working on it in a very careful manner. 

How do you rate AQAP in terms of threats posed by al-Qaeda agencies to the American interests around the world? 
In rating the potentials of the different al-Qaeda-linked groups around the world, no doubt we place AQAP first. If you see al-Qaeda in the tribal areas, it is obviously weaker now than it used to be years ago. Al-Shabab Movement in Somalia has also suffered a series of defeats that forced it to evacuate Mogadishu. Al-Qaeda in East Asia is weaker than it used to be. The same is true to Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb and in Iraq. All these groups suffered a series of defeats in the last years. But AQAP remains to be a viable organization. It managed to take advantage of the political and security situations in Yemen to widen its outreach and its presence. 

After the killing of Anwar al-Aolaqi and Samir Khan, do you think that AQAP is still focusing on targeting the US or is it focusing on Yemen? 
We think that they have not quit their aims to launch an international jihad, not only against the US but also against our friends and allies around the world, such as UK, Western Europe and the Arabia countries. We believe that AQAP is still intensively seeking opportunities to launch attacks (outside Yemen). 

In the past, when we used to talk about "foreign jihadists", these used to go to Iraq. Do you think there is a tendency now for foreign jihadists to join AQAP? 
Absolutely. When we discuss these issues with the Yemeni Government, they [say they] find elements from different parts of the world with Qaeda. There are elements from Somalia, different parts of Arabia, Egypt, Syria, South East Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan but even from 
Western Europe. It is clear that there is an influx of militants fighters to Yemen. 

Are they in tens or hundreds? 
It is hard to tell. 
Reports spoke about the movement of 300 armed men from Somalia to Yemen? 
There is indeed a strong presence of Somalis in Yemen for some time. So, it is likely that Somalis make up a great portion of AQAP elements. 

It is claimed that Iran is trying to interfere in Yemeni affairs by sending weapons and trainers to Houthis. Have you got any evidence of this alleged Iranian role? 
We are quite concerned over the fiercer Iranian efforts to establish relations in Yemen, especially with the Houthis and other elements in the Yemeni community in the south and in the north as well. We think that the Iranians' intention is to destabilize Yemen and prevent successful political transition process. We see evidences that the Iranians provide military assistance and training to some of these Yemeni elements, in addition to the financial and political support provided by them. 

In your opinion, what do they want by their support to the Houthis? 
It is clear that the Iranians want to build an influence and impact on the developments in Yemen, through gaining influence internally or in the wider region by establishing a foothold in Arabia, a matter that is normally seen as a security threat to Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. 

Do Iranians provide this support directly or via agents? 
Available evidences confirm that Hezbollah and Hamas support this Iranian role and effort. We also know that there is a Yemeni Southern presence in Beirut used as a connecting link (conduit) for the Iranian support provided to obstructive forces in the south. The Iranians are not only working on their influence line with the Houthis, but with other Yemeni parts. 

Thus, do you think that the Iranians are encouraging Yemeni southerners to separate? 
At least, they encourage the obstruction of political solutions for southern issues. 

What is your position as American Government towards the southerners' efforts seeking separation? 
The US policy on Yemeni unity is clear. Our opinion is that this matter was already settled in 1990, when the two parts of the country were united. In 1994, the US clearly supported maintaining Yemen's unity, and our position is still the same. We say the GCC initiative (for resolving the Yemeni current crisis) stated clearly that the intention is that discussions on all differences within the Yemeni society should be settled under a unified Yemen. The UNSC's Resolution (2014) also speaks of Yemen's unity. All the international community supports Yemen's unity and sovereignty, and not only United States. 

Is there a difference between AQAP and Partisans of Sharia? 
They are the same organization. Partisans of Sharia is a façade or a covering of al-Qaeda. 

Do you know where the leadership of Qaeda is located in Yemen? 
I think the organization's leadership is now scattered. They have no specific building. I hoped that they have a definite building where they all live, so life would have been more easier. Historically, Qaeda organization used to be in Marib, but they are now in Abian where the senior leadership is likely there. I think there is no a single place which is considered to be a headquarter to them. 
Do you ever imagine that Qaeda can control Yemen? 
I don't believe that they have enough force for that, I don't either believe that the majority of Yemeni people may support or accept that. I think that AQAP would always remain to be a relatively small group. It has the ability to obstruct and to create certain atmosphere of violence and terror. They succeeded in that because of weakness of the Yemeni government and weakness of the Yemeni military institution to succeed in taking control on ground, but this is a temporary situation. [However], when the government is able to make progress in achieving this transition, Qaeda's ability will vanish. I think eventually – through cooperation initiatives between the American Government and the Yemeni government, and between the Yemeni Government and other international community – success will be scored in defeating al-Qaeda and in expelling it from Yemen. 
It is not a secret that you are concerned over the activity of some parts of the Islah Party? 
It is important to be frank: we have very good relations with the Islah Party, and we are closely working with its leadership that is fully participating in the democratic process and is committed to its principles. We have no problem with Islah in this regard, and I hope that we continue to maintain good contacts with them. Nevertheless, there are obviously elements in the Islah, particularly Abdul-Majid al-Zindani who is classified by the UN as terror supporter, and we have many causes for concerns over him. We were frank with them that the presence of al-Zindani, his supporters and followers in the party causes problem for us and the rest of the international community as well. We will continue considering this issue. However, as long as the Islah Party is taking the democratic path and participating in the GCC initiative and in the coalition government, we can keep in good terms with it.

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