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World

U.S. Withdraws Remaining Personnel From Volatile Yemen

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The nation of Yemen has long been a worrisome hotspot for the United States because of terrorism activity there. More so recently because the self-proclaimed Islamic State is starting to gain hold. But counter-terrorism operations may be more difficult now. The U.S. has pulled all of its personnel out of Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The U.S. first began scaling back its personnel in Yemen in September. By February, the volatile political and security situation forced the embassy to suspend its operations. And this weekend, after a spike in violence, the U.S. withdrew all remaining personnel from Yemen, including more than 100 special operations forces. Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, says it's unusual to pull out all civilian, military and intelligence personnel.

BARBARA BODINE: It may be the rational thing to do in terms of the security of our people, but right now we have no one on the ground in Yemen in any capacity. And that puts us at an enormous disadvantage in trying to figure out what is going on.

NORTHAM: For several years, the U.S. has run counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. The country's embattled president was a key ally, but he was forced out after Houthi rebels took control of the capital. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf says the U.S. still has the capability to handle security issues involving Yemen.

MARIE HARF: We did relocate personnel for security reasons, but we have resources in the region to address counterterrorism and we have not been forced to suspend our counterterrorism operations.

NORTHAM: But former Ambassador Bodine says good counterterrorism operations involve more than just drones or spy satellites flying overhead.

BODINE: And you can't really do the kind of counterterrorism operations that we've been doing without somebody on the ground. Drones need intelligence behind them.

NORTHAM: Without American personnel on the ground, the U.S. will have to rely on local Yemeni contacts for information, says Les Campbell, the head of the Middle East and North Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute.

LES CAMPBELL: But it's secondhand. You don't know the veracity of those reports. You know, you have to really rely on people's judgment. You can't see it for yourself.

NORTHAM: Campbell says there's an underlying fear of a security vacuum in Yemen.

CAMPBELL: And that type of situation, as we know from places like Somalia, does invite extremist people and groups to go because they can operate with relative impunity.

NORTHAM: But Campbell says Yemen isn't a failed state yet. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.