Yemen Dispatch: Into an Al-Qaida Hotspot

BY Margaret Warner  March 22, 2010 at 5:05 PM EDT

ABYAN PROVINCE, YEMEN – This past weekend, in southern Yemen, we went where most foreigners haven’t been allowed to travel since late 2008 — Abyan province, east of the port city of Aden on the Arabian Sea. It’s been a hotbed of al-Qaida activity since before the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole (when it was known by a different name), and has seen the kidnapping of numerous foreigners.

But on Friday, we were in Aden, where we met the governor of Abyan — Ahmed al-Misri. He drove in to meet us for a lunch of Aden’s famed seafood at a seaside hotel watering hole. Then we loaded into his Toyota Land Cruiser for a three-hour tour across the border into his neighboring province. His driver stopped briefly at the hotel’s security gates, where the governor rolled down his window, retrieved his automatic machine gun from the guard and tipped him with a plastic bag of Yemenis’ favorite stimulant chewing leaf “qat” in return. And we were on our way.

We moved smartly through the first road checkpoint into Abyan. The security police, glimpsing my Western face, started to question us, but the governor barked an order, and we rolled on.

It was heartbreaking, really — driving past mile after mile of beautiful beaches, with rolling waves that would make any American developer drool. But not in Abyan. It’s too insecure here, the governor said, to attract such investors or hotel clientele. We talked about what needs to be done to combat al-Qaida’s hold. He’s glad the Yemeni government has authorized airstrikes on al-Qaida militants and sites in his province. But he said it’s going to take a lot more — development and jobs.

Proving just how insecure his province is, we found we’d picked up a serious security detail, an open bed pick-up truck with eight well-armed men pointing their Kalishnikovs in all directions. “Do you have these with you all the time?” we asked al-Misri. Oh no, he said, “They’re here to protect you.”

That was just one of the eye-opening encounters we’ve had on this trip, as we try to get a handle on why Yemen has become a terrorist haven, and what impact it’s had on this beautiful but impoverished country.

We talked to political figures and business people, an officer running an anti-terror troop training exercise, a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden’s, a qat farmer and a Yemeni-American hip-hop artist, to try to tell that story. I hope you’ll stay tuned to the PBS NewsHour broadcast for our week-long series on Yemen.

You can watch an earlier video dispatch from Margaret’s Yemen reporting trip here.