TOPICS > Politics

Yemen’s Struggles With al-Qaida Reveal a Country of Contradictions

March 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the first part of a series of reports from Yemen, Margaret Warner explores the country's complex security concerns and why the nation has become an effective home base for the newest threats from al-Qaida.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to another part of the world, as Margaret Warner begins her reports from the Middle East nation of Yemen, a place that has attracted urgent new attention in the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: The call to prayer sounds five times a day in Yemen, as it does across the Arab world. This ancient nation on the Arabian Peninsula boasts a glorious architectural heritage, along with grinding poverty and a new and increasingly deadly franchise of the global al-Qaida network.

The outfit calls itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The top leadership includes two Saudi-born former Guantanamo detainees. While some have taken cover in the capital city, Sanaa, most members are believed to be sheltered in Yemen’s rugged tribal provinces, far from central government control.

Each week, tribal and community leaders meet on the outskirts of Sanaa to strategize about how to counter the al-Qaida presence in their nearby Marib Province. They insist they’re confronting AQAP where they can, not harboring it.

MOHAMMED AHMED AL-ZAIDI, Yemen (through translator): Al-Qaida in Marib feels unwanted. They are shunned and hunted. The ethics, morals and ideals of al-Qaida completely contradict the ethics and morals of the tribal system in Marib.

MARGARET WARNER: They fault Yemen’s central government for shutting their province off to foreign tourists, while still not providing reliable electricity, health services or schools. It’s a combination, they say, that aids al-Qaida.

ALI AL-GHOLESI, Yemen (through translator): We have a saying here: Where the paved road ends, al-Qaida begins. And we have a lot of unpaved roads in Marib.

MARGARET WARNER: They also blame the United States for their plight.

ALI AL-GHOLESI (through translator): I would say with confidence that the U.S. reestablished al-Qaida, as we see some leaders of al-Qaida were in Guantanamo and wanted revenge.

MARGARET WARNER: And why, if you know where they are and they’re shunned, you don’t just turn them over to the authorities?

AL-HASBHI, Yemen (through translator): A tribal chief may extend refuge or help someone until he sees clear evidence that this person has committed a crime.

MARGARET WARNER: At his home in Sanaa, former Prime Minister and presidential adviser Abdul Karim al-Iryani says there’s something more at work.

ABDUL KARIM AL-IRYANI, former Yemeni prime minister: There is a traditional system of accepting anyone who comes and says, I need you to protect me.

But I believe, with regard to al-Qaida, I can’t imagine that a tribe will shelter al-Qaida for free. It’s not a free ride. And, I’m afraid, they have money.

MARGARET WARNER: We came to Yemen to explore why this country has emerged as home base to the most effective new al-Qaida offshoot. And we found a contradiction. Ordinary Yemenis seem very welcoming to outsiders. Yet, from the medieval Crusades to the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan and beyond, Yemenis have punched above their weight in waging jihad abroad.

We asked the former prime minister to explain the contradiction.

ABDUL KARIM AL-IRYANI: Yemenis are well-known traders, well-known migrants. So, being traders, you have to be tolerant. Being an immigrant, you have to accept the other.

MARGARET WARNER: But when fellow Muslims are under attack, he said, Yemenis have always answered the call.

ABDUL KARIM AL-IRYANI: The concept of continuous jihad is not a Yemeni phenomenon. It’s not — it’s not very entrenched in Yemen. However, when the call comes, they do.

MARGARET WARNER: Squarely in that tradition was Nasser al-Bahri, who went to Afghanistan in the mid-’90s and became a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.

NASSER AL-BAHRI, former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden (through translator): He was so calm. He was so self-confident. He was, for me, the only and best person who could confront the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Though out of the action now, al-Bahri still considers the U.S. to be the world’s biggest menace to Muslims. And he says America is exaggerating the strength of AQAP.

NASSER AL-BAHRI (through translator): Al-Qaida in Yemen is weak. The real al-Qaida people in Yemen do not exceed 200, maybe a few more. The media makes it much bigger.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, they were good enough to almost bring down a U.S. airliner on Christmas.

NASSER AL-BAHRI (through translator): This doesn’t mean that they have a huge number of people. They need only an idea, training, preparation, then implementation.

MARGARET WARNER: One of AQAP’s ideas is recruiting radicalized young Muslims from the west, sometimes using Sanaa’s world-famous Arabic-language schools as unwitting cover.

The would-be Christmas Day bomber, Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, showed up for classes here, but dropped out after three weeks to pursue his deadly mission. U.S. and Yemeni officials say, however, that most of AQAP’s foot soldiers are drawn from local families, who struggle, whether in the countryside or the city, to live on an average of $2 a day.

Now they fear the desperation will grow, as terrorism takes a toll on Yemen’s all-important tourist trade. The medieval stone and plaster structures of the Sanaa’s Old City used to draw world travelers to look and to spend.

Usually, how many sales would you make a day?

SHOPKEEPER: Two hundred dollars, $300. It depends. Sometimes more, and sometimes less.


SHOPKEEPER: And now maybe $200 a month.

MARGARET WARNER: Shopkeeper Karim al-Faqi took us on a tour to show the wider impact.

Last month and this month, it went down. But, before, it was busy. Locals, it is no — no money coming from outside the country.

MARGARET WARNER: So, all of this, in a way, you’re saying is a little deceptive? There’s not enough really happening here?

SHOPKEEPER: That’s right. Too much stuff, and few people to buy.

MARGARET WARNER: Another risk? Too few teachers or jobs for the legions of restless young men in Yemen’s overcrowded and underfunded schools.

AMIN AL-ANDRISI, high school English teacher: For me, myself, I can’t keep — memorize all the names of the students.

MARGARET WARNER: High school English Amin al-Andrisi, mobbed by his students during a break, feels he’s letting them down.

AMIN AL-ANDRISI: You can get in some classes more than 80 students. Sometimes, we are reaching 120. Yes. Yes. You can’t believe that. No, you believe me. And you can ask any student here.

MARGARET WARNER: And he fears Yemen will let them down, too, when it comes to getting a college education or a decent job.

AMIN AL-ANDRISI: You know, you are teaching teenagers who are between 16 to 19 years old. This is the age which the students, they think, themselves, that they are very strong and very power and they can do whatever they want.

MARGARET WARNER: Whatever they want — in a country that too often doesn’t provide good choices for its youth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret will continue her reports from Yemen later this week.