Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid an unannounced visit to the Republic of Yemen this past week, a nominal U.S. ally that has been in and out of the news for the last decade: most of the news bad. It started with a bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor back in 2000.
Today, half the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are from Yemen, and the last two al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. mainland have originated there. While the United States has been busy with military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, this remote, lawless country has now emerged as the main staging area for attacks against the west.
Wracked with internal strife and political instability, Yemen is presenting a complicated challenge for U.S. policymakers, with no easy fixes and few good options.
Yemen is one of the oldest civilizations in the Middle East, with 3,000 years of history. It is believed that Noah and the Queen of Sheba once lived there, and if they were to come back today they would find much of the countryside unchanged, except for the weapons.
It is a country of 23 million people and at least 23 million guns, many of them currently in use.
Yemen's beleaguered government has been fighting a tribal war in the north, an armed secessionist movement in the south, and a growing insurgency from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
It is now the most active branch of the al Qaeda network. "In many ways they are the most pressing threat against the U.S. homeland," former U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull told correspondent Steve Kroft.
Few Americans know more about Yemen than Hull, who served there in the years immediately following 9/11.
Asked if he has any idea how many people in Yemen are affiliated with al Qaeda, Hull told Kroft, "You have a relatively small number of kind of hardcore inner circle in the hundreds, then you have a next circle, probably in the thousands of people who can be relied on to help out in a pinch.
And then, a larger circle yet of people who are ideologically sympathetic to the organization." Despite relatively small numbers, they have made their presence felt far beyond Yemen.
The failed suicide bombing of this jetliner in Detroit a year ago Christmas was carried out by Umar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student was trained and equipped in Yemen with explosives sewn into his underwear.
And then there were the two Chicago-bound bombs that were supposed to blow up UPS and FedEx planes last October. They too originated in Yemen.
The highly sophisticated devices were concealed in printer cartridges and believed to be the handiwork of Ibrahim al-Asiri.
"Al-Asiri is the bomb maker. He's apparently a very creative type who is adept at seeing chinks in our armor and challenging them," Hull explained.
In many ways Yemen is the perfect safe haven for al Qaeda. There is a strong fraternity here of former jihadists who fought the Russians in Afghanistan.
There are the porous borders and ports that make it easy to smuggle people in and out, and hundreds of thousands of square miles of desert and mountains where they can hide, train and plan their missions with the acquiescence of local tribes, and little interference from the government, which has limited presence outside the major cities.
And finally there is the grinding poverty and political discontent that al Qaeda seems to be exploiting: Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, there is a critical shortage of water, a third of its people are hungry, and resentment is building against the longtime autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
"How would you describe his government?" Kroft asked Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani. "Completely powerless," he replied.
Al-Iryani is a member of one of the most powerful families in Yemen. A development consultant and political analyst, he is one of the few insiders there willing to speak candidly.
"Our economy is in very bad shape. Overall the situation is very dangerous," he told Kroft. Asked if it could bring the government down, al-Iryani told Kroft, "It could." "To be replaced by what?" Kroft asked. "Chaos," al-Iryani said.
In the past nine months there have been two terrorist attacks against U.S. and British embassy personnel, and one against the British ambassador.
Travel by westerners outside the major cities is restricted, out of concern that they could be killed or kidnapped.
That was the atmosphere this past week when Secretary of State Clinton met with President Saleh, trying to prod him into stepping up the fight against al Qaeda with promises of more economic assistance.
Officially, the only U.S. military presence in Yemen is a contingent of about 50 trainers working with Yemen's counterterrorism forces. "60 Minutes" was not allowed to film the Americans, but were allowed to show Yemeni troops running through their exercises.
Counterterrorism forces are under the command of General Yahya Saleh, who is the nephew of the president.
He told us the country is grateful for the assistance but believes any more U.S. troops on the ground will only win new recruits for al Qaeda.
"The Americans should know that they are not welcome in this region, and they are not very popular," Gen. Saleh told Kroft. "You say the United States is very unpopular here," Kroft remarked. "I'm not saying in Yemen.
In the region," Saleh replied. "In the region, what about in Yemen?" Kroft asked. "It's part of the region," Saleh replied.
The government's official position is that the U.S. can't be involved militarily there and needs to let the Yemenis take on al Qaeda - a political decision intended to appease Muslim sensitivities. But there is no question U.S. military involvement goes far beyond the 50 trainers.
Whatever else the U.S. may be providing to Yemen in the in the way of military assistance is highly classified.
There are certainly drones overhead doing reconnaissance and gathering intelligence, as well as Navy cruise missiles offshore that have already been used to kill al Qaeda militants and unfortunately some innocent civilians.
Forty one civilians were killed in two American missile strikes in December 2009, and another one last May inadvertently killed a government official, creating an uproar and major protests in the northern provinces.
But leaked diplomatic cables show that Yemen has tolerated the attacks, and collateral damage is unlikely to deter the U.S. from going after high-value targets, one of which is an American.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical imam who was born in New Mexico and spent years preaching in the U.S., has a worldwide Internet following as an instigator of violence against the United States.
U.S. counterterrorist officials believe al-Awlaki has graduated from encouraging people to kill Americans to helping al Qaeda actually do it, and permission has been granted to assassinate him even though he is an American citizen.
"No doubt in your mind that he is al Qaeda?" Kroft asked former Ambassador Hull. "No doubt in my mind. I don't even think he would dispute that," he replied.
Al-Awlaki is one of the few al Qaeda leaders who speaks fluent English and his special skill has been recruiting Americans and westerners to the cause.
One of them may have been Sharif Mobley, an American from New Jersey, who worked at six nuclear power plants before moving to Yemen and making contact with al-Awlaki.
Mobley was picked up last year in a sweep of suspected militants and is currently jailed on murder charges after killing a guard during a failed escape.
Al-Awlaki is believed to be hiding somewhere in a remote tribal area. "Would you send troops in to try and get him?" Kroft asked Yemen's Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. "For sure," Minister al-Qirbi replied.
"You are working very closely with the United States," Kroft remarked. "And your government is committed to fighting terrorism." "Yes," al-Qirbi replied.
"If there was somebody here inside that the American government though was an important terrorist
you would go out and arrest
him?" Kroft asked. "Of course," al-Qirbi replied.
"You arrest him and look at the evidence against him and prosecute him if he has undertaken any terrorist activities." But that has not been the case with Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a politically influential firebrand cleric who the United States has named a "specially designated global terrorist."
The U.N. Security Council says Sheik al-Zindani has a long history of working with Osama bin Laden.
He has actively recruited for al Qaeda training camps and he has also played a key role in the purchase of weapons on behalf of al Qaeda.
In addition to being the country's most powerful religious leader, al-Zindani also runs Al-Eman University, the alma mater of some very famous alumni.
John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban recruit, studied at the university, as did the underwear bomber Abdulmutallab. Sheik Anwar Al-Awlaki was a teacher there.
Both the university and al-Zindani operate openly in Yemen's capital with the blessing of the government.
We wanted to know why, from the foreign minister.
"Sheik Zindani has been named by the U.S. government as a 'specially designated global terrorist.' You're aware of that?" Kroft asked.
"I know there is something like that, yes," al-Qirbi replied. "The U.S. Treasury Department told us at the end of October that Zindani advocates violence against Western countries and he remains involved in providing support to al Qaeda," Kroft pointed out.
"Well, we have no evidence of that," al-Qirbi said. "Well, a fairly impressive list of terrorists have come out of Sheik Zindani's university," Kroft remarked. "Well, this is something that I don't have any information on.
If it is shared with the security agencies in Yemen, I'm sure they will act on it," the foreign minister replied.
"Many of those who were involved in terrorist activity in Yemen were students of this university. And I consider it to be the cradle of extremism in Yemen," Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani told Kroft.
Al-Iryani, the Yemeni development expert and political analyst, says it is obvious to most people in Yemen why the government refuses to go after Sheik Zindani "That's impossible. Politically it's impossible.
Zindani has a huge following," he explained. Asked what the relationship is between al-Zindani and President Saleh, al-Iryani said, "They're political allies." "So, you have somebody here who the United State government and the United Nations think is a terrorist, and he is a political ally of the president?" Kroft asked.
"Yes," al-Iryani said. "He's living openly?" Kroft asked. "He not only lives openly, he is a former member of the presidential council.
So he receives all of the protection, security and financial benefits of a former leader of the country," al-Iryani replied.
Needless to say, there is a good deal of mistrust between the United States and Yemen, much of it going back to 2006 when 13 al Qaeda members escaped from a prison by supposedly tunneling their way into an adjacent mosque.
Not even the president's nephew, General Saleh, who is in charge of counterterrorism, seemed to buy the official version.
"There was this story that they dug out with spoons?" Kroft asked. "Yeah, that's it," Saleh replied.
"Do you believe that?" Kroft asked. "We have to believe it," Saleh replied, laughing. "You have to believe it. Do you think maybe they got some help from people in the system?" Kroft asked.
"Maybe," Saleh said. "I have no idea about that." Ambassador Hull told Kroft, "At a minimum there was incompetence. Whether there was collaboration, facilitation, I don't know. But it really was the launch point for the current al Qaeda organization in Yemen.
" Some of the escapees now comprise the top leadership of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which would like nothing better than to see the United States intervene militarily in Yemen.
But there is no appetite for it in Washington these days, and strong sentiment that it would only make the situation worse.
The plan is to improve intelligence and surgically remove al Qaeda's top leadership, while propping up the famously corrupt Saleh government with manageable amounts of development and economic aid that would address some of the country's underlying problems.
It's a long shot, but as we said earlier, there are no good options.