|Al-Qaeda has been active in Yemen, targeting both Yemeni and Western interests [Reuters]
A storage facility holding Yemen's radioactive material was left unguarded for up to a week after its only guard was removed on December 30, 2009, according to a US cable released by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
The leaked cable, published by the UK's Guardian newspaper, was sent by a Yemeni government official in Sanaa to the CIA, the FBI and the homeland security department as well as the US secretary of state in Washington and others.
It was sent in the days following last year's failed Christmas day bomb plot targeting a Detroit-bound airliner.
According to security sources, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born would-be airline bomber, was radicalised in Yemen.
The cable also disclosed that the single closed-circuit television security camera monitoring the facility had broken six months prior to that and it was never fixed.
According to the cable, small amounts of the radioactive materials were used by local universities for agricultural research, by a Sanaa hospital and by international oilfield services companies for well-logging equipment.
The message, dated January 9, shows the concerns of a Yemeni government official, whose name was removed, about the unsecured state of a National Atomic Energy Commission facility [NAEC].
'Bad guys' warning
The cable reveals that the official urged the US to help convince the Yemeni government to "remove all materials from the country until they can be better secured, or immediately improve security measures at the NAEC facility".
The official has been quoted in the cable as saying that "very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen's nuclear material".
The cable showed that the embassy would push senior Yemeni officials to provide an accounting of its radioactive materials and ensure storage facilities were secure.
However, on January 7, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Yemeni foreign minister told the US ambassador that "no radioactive material was currently stored in Sanaa and that all "radioactive waste was shipped to Syria".
Yemeni officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the Guardian report.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], an extremely active branch of the group, has its headquarters in Yemen, the poorest Arab country.
AQAP has not only frequently targeted the Yemeni government but has also attempted several attacks against the West, including the failed cargo-bomb plot in October and the failed 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot.
Unlike uranium, radioactive isotopes are not explosive on their own.
However, Western governments, including the US, fear that a nuclear device can be made combining these isotopes with simple explosives.
The radioactive elements in such a nuclear device are not likely to kill a significant number of people, but are sufficient to easily damage and contaminate large areas, turning them into no-go zones.
Hence the concern voiced by the Yemeni official to secure the radioactive stocks as quickly as possible before AQAP operatives could get their hands on these.