SANAA (AFP) – Yemeni security forces have arrested more than 30 foreign nationals on suspicion of having links with Al-Qaeda, among them three Frenchmen, an American and a Briton, a security official said on Sunday.
“Some of them were arrested on suspicion of belonging to Al-Qaeda while others were arrested according to lists provided to Yemen security forces by US intelligence,” the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Most of those arrested came to Yemen to study Arabic in the same school where Nigerian Omar Farouk had studied,” the official said.
He was referring to Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to blow up a US airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day and who had studied in the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language, in the Yemeni capital’s old city.
“During the month of May, a number of foreigners were arrested, including one Frenchman, one American, one Briton, two Malaysians (and) five Nigerians,” the official said.
“There are a number of foreigners who were arrested prior to May,” including two French nationals arrested in April, he added.
The official provided details on one of the French nationals — Jeremy Johnny Witter — who has been in custody since May, he said.
Witter, who was born in 1986 and comes from Orsay, near Paris, arrived in Yemen to study Arabic at the Sanaa Institute in November 2009, after having lived in Egypt for seven years, the official said.
Abd al-Rab al-Jaradi, the manager of the Sanaa Institute, told AFP that three of its students have been arrested in the past month, but did not specify their nationalities.
The number of students in the school has decreased sharply of late, Jaradi said.
“Now there are only seven foreigners in the institute… while (it) received dozens of foreigners in the past,” he said, adding that it had not received any requests for new registrations.
In a February report, the Washington Times, a newspaper which prides itself on its contacts in the US intelligence community, said that Western agents had launched a massive manhunt for English speakers who trained in Yemen with Abdulmutallab.
Abdulmutallab reportedly told FBI interrogators he met with other English speakers at a training camp in Yemen run by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“It’s safe to say that Abdulmutallab is not the only bullet in the chamber for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” an unnamed US official told the Times.
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and has witnessed several attacks claimed by the group on foreign missions, tourist sites and oil installations.
On Saturday, suspected Al-Qaeda members killed a Yemeni colonel and two other soldiers in Marib province, east of the capital Sanaa, tribal and military sources said.
Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks amid US pressure on the government to crack down. But its presence threatens to turn Yemen into a base for training and plotting attacks, a senior US counter-terrorism official warned last year.