FRONTLINE GAINS RARE ACCESS TO AL QAEDA STRONGHOLD IN YEMEN
Since the death of Osama bin Laden, Yemen has become the hottest front in the war against Al Qaeda. Now, with headlines about an alleged terrorist plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner and a suicide bomber killing about 100 soldiers in the capital, Sana, President Obama has expressed concern about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “We are very concerned about Al Qaeda activity and extremist activity in Yemen,” Obama said at a NATO conference in Chicago. “We have established a strong counterterrorism partnership with the Yemeni government. And we’re going to continue to work with the Yemeni government to try to identify AQAP leadership and operations and try to thwart them.”
In FRONTLINE special report, Al Qaeda in Yemen, airing Tuesday, May 29, 2012, at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reporting for FRONTLINE, and Safa al-Ahmad, his director who accompanied him, travel deep into Yemen’s radical heartland to look at how members of Al Qaeda, describing themselves as the group Ansar al-Sharia, have seized control of cities and towns and are winning support among some in the local population—and recruiting militants—by administering scarce resources.
Abdul-Ahad gained rare access to some of the most dangerous AQAP strongholds in the south. “From the moment that you got that call, it’s extreme anxiety,” says Abdul-Ahad about traveling with insurgents. “This is an organization known for its kidnapping [of] journalists, detaining them for a long time, sometimes beheading them, so it’s a very, very difficult choice.”
An Al Qaeda spokesman, Fouad, who accompanied the FRONTLINE team through territory controlled by the militants, tells Abdul-Ahad that the group has grand ambitions: the creation of its own state. “Our fighters always wanted an Islamic state. They didn’t just want to fight. They wanted a state with services and institutions, a state to take care of its citizens and [which] represents Islamic law,” he says.
“For the first time in my experience, we see Al Qaeda actually trying to hold territory, and this is a departure from anything that we had seen before,” U.S. ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein tells FRONTLINE. “The fact of the matter is that they continue to try to find ways to attack not only here in Yemen, but in the United States, in the neighborhood against Saudi Arabia, against Western Europe and the U.K. So they have global aspirations, and we consider that they still present a very significant challenge.”
For the man who runs Yemen’s counterterrorism forces, targeted in the recent suicide attack, Gen. Yahya Saleh —nephew of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh—the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Yemen is very real. “Al Qaeda today is not the same as Al Qaeda a year and a half ago. They have more followers, more money, more guns; the area they control is bigger, and this is a great danger.”
Yet internal power struggles within the Yemeni government and the army have created space in which Al Qaeda can operate. Instead of using their resources to fight Al Qaeda, politicians loyal to deposed president Ali Saleh are battling his opponents and those who support his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
But Al Qaeda is not without effective opposition. Before his death, Osama bin Laden warned Al Qaeda in Yemen that the main threat to their survival was not U.S. drone attacks, not the Yemeni army, but antagonizing Yemen’s tribes. Abdul-Ahad travels to the town of Lawdar, where he discovers that Al Qaeda had been driven from power by local residents after assassinating a tribal leader.
Also in this hour, the story of Al Qaeda operative Fahd al-Quso, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen earlier this month, as told by former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who first interrogated him before 9/11.
Al Qaeda in Yemen is a Clover Films production for WGBH/FRONTLINE. The producer is Jamie Doran. The correspondent is Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. The series senior producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
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