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Nichols: So far, we’re lucky terrorists aren’t smarter

POSTED: May 10, 2010 1:00 a.m.

The Yemen of today was created in 1990 when North Yemen united with South Yemen. North Yemen had been given independence in 1918 when Turkey lost most of its colonies as punishment for its siding with Germany in World War I.

I believe Turkey had built several ships for the Kaiser. I don't think that any Ottoman Turkish soldiers were involved in the fighting.

The other part of the newly combined state is South Yemen which had been a British protectorate from the 19th century. The British withdrew in 1967, leaving South Yemen as an independent state. The center of this protectorate was the port city of Aden. The current capital is the inland city of Sana'a.

Yemen is a country about twice the size of Wyoming. It stretches along the southwestern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Its land borders and shoreline are about the same length. On land, it borders Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. Its shoreline borders the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.

South Yemen had proclaimed itself to be a Marxist state in 1970 and North Yemen had permitted al-Qaida to become well established recently.

On Oct. 12, 2000, the USS Cole was attacked while anchored in the port of Aden. Seventeen 17 U.S. sailors were killed, 39 wounded.

The Yemeni government is now fighting a civil war in the south and a war against al-Qaida in the north. The U.S. and Yemen seem to have recently joined in the fight against al-Qaida.

The Pentagon reported that in 2009 we gave Yemen nearly $70 million in military aid. This was in stark contrast to the zero aid given in 2008.

In some ways, Yemen and Afghanistan are similar. Both have some citizens who are Muslim extremists. Both governments have recently accepted U.S. aid for their cooperation in our bigger battle with al-Qaida.

Both have governments weak at the center with many areas of the country not really under the control of the central government. I suspect that corruption is as rampant in Yemen as it is in Afghanistan. And both harbor active units of al-Qaida.

The major difference is that Afghanistan is landlocked, difficult to enter and exit, except for terrorists who seem to cross the border easily into Pakistan. Yemen's coastline and desert land borders make it much easier to enter or depart.

The Christmas Day attack on the Delta/Northwest flight to Detroit from Amsterdam by the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab involved a weapon that did not explode. That young man was a militant suicide bomber who had twice been to Yemen, and studied briefly at the Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language.

Apparently he was trained to be a suicide bomber by operatives of al-Qaida. The explosive powder sewn into his underwear was reportedly identical to that used earlier by the shoe bomber years earlier.

The amazing fact about the Christmas day failed attack was that Abdulmutallab was on a list of 500,000 suspicious persons, but not on a no-fly super list of known terrorists. He apparently got through airport security twice without sounding an alarm. How did that happen? How did he so easily obtain a valid U.S. visa?

We made a serious mistake by not acting on the warning by Abdulmutallab's father that his son was being radicalized in Yemen. There is no excuse for ignoring that warning.

Yemen has been involved in other terrorist attacks against the U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hassan who killed 13 persons at Fort Hood, Texas, was reportedly advised in terror techniques by Anwar al Awlaki from Yemen.

We have been lucky so far that incompetence has ruined several attempts to kill Americans. The shoe bomber's shoe did not ignite. The Christmas Day attack failed because of technical stupidity on the part of the would-be terrorist.

Finally, Faisal Shahzad left the car he had purchased for cash on the street at Times Square in New York. It was filled with bombs that did not ignite. A bright-eyed street vendor saw the car parked in a wrong spot noticed smoke escaping and notified the police.

They traced the car to Shahzad, and found him on an airplane bound for Dubai in the Middle East. The pilot was directed to turn around and not take off. The police boarded the plane and arrested Shahzad before he could flee the country and maybe to escape back to the country of his birth, Pakistan.

These three recent attempts of terrorism failed due to circumstances and to mistakes by the would-be terrorists. I fear that one day soon, smarter terrorists may succeed and kill many Americans. What then?

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor and Gainesville resident. His columns
appear regularly on Mondays.



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