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Across Yemen, Sympathy for al-Qaida Pervades

January 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jonathon Rugman of Independent Television News reports from the capital of Yemen on the appeal of al-Qaida there.

GWEN IFILL: Now to our two-part look at Yemen, the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation suddenly in the international spotlight as an al-Qaida haven. Authorities there arrested three men today in a security crackdown aimed at rooting out militants. It began after investigators found a link between Yemen and the bombing suspect.

Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News reports from the country’s capital.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: It’s a long way from here to Detroit, but it was in Sanaa’s sprawling streets that a plot to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas Day may well have been planned.

Yemen, ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden himself, is once again on al-Qaida’s front line. And the big burly man with the balding pate and beneficent smile knows all about it, for Nasser al-Bahri, alias Abu Jandal, is the former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden himself.

But do you miss Osama bin Laden?


JONATHAN RUGMAN: You miss him?


JONATHAN RUGMAN: A martyr, he says, a man to be loved.

NASSER AL-BAHRI (through translator): I have often said I love Osama bin Laden more than my father. We shared many experiences, and he defends the Islamic nation. He doesn’t like killing.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Mr. al-Bahri was one of many Yemenis serving alongside bin Laden in the Afghan mountains in the late 1990s, where he earned the nickname “The Killer.” After jail time in Yemen, he now works here as a business consultant. But he’s still proud of the leg wound the al-Qaida leader often bandaged up for him. And though he’s retired from jihad, his sympathy for the latest generation is hard to disguise.

Do you have any understanding as to why this Nigerian would allegedly attempt to blow him — himself and other people up on a plane heading towards Detroit?

NASSER AL-BAHRI (through translator): I wish the question wasn’t so naive. Britain and America are in Iraq and in Afghanistan. They intervene in the affairs of Islamic nations. There are a million people out there like the Nigerian.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student with explosives in his underpants who put al-Qaida back on the map, he studied Arabic last summer at this language school in Sanaa. It seems a sane and civilized place of learning, now tainted by the actions of one notorious pupil whose teachers say he was smart, the best in the class, not a man to blow up a plane mid-flight.

AHMED MOAJEB, former teacher of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (through translator): Like the whole world, I was wrong about him. Amsterdam Airport was wrong about him. He was always smiling.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Smiling, like the friendly former bodyguard of the world’s most wanted man who now lives quietly in this dirt-poor capital city, where al-Qaida still inspires young men to wage war against the West.