in search of al qaeda
homethe journeyinside the tribal areasground zero: pakistandiscussion
Abdul Karim Al-Eryani

He has twice served as Yemen's prime minister (1980-1983 and 1998-2001) and currently is an advisor to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In this interview, Eryani describes how many veterans of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets returned to Yemen to fight the communists during Yemen's civil war. This interview was conducted on Oct. 8, 2002.


Abdul Karim Al-Eryani photo
Abdul Karim Al-Eryani photo

... Give me some sense of what you think Al Qaeda's presence is in Yemen today.

I think most of those suspected Al Qaeda are detained. Some of them are related to the Cole incident. You know the main culprits died during the explosion. That's really I think the largest number of Al Qaeda elements who are in Yemen. The exception of maybe three or four people are still on the loose, and they are being tracked and followed up.

How can you know that the majority of them are being detained and only three or four are on the loose?

With regard to three or four in the loose, they are very well-known individuals.

Al-Ahdal and al-Harethi, for instance?

Yes. Exactly.

But how can you know that there aren't more?

And [al-Rabeei]. Then the fact that from passport records, those who went to Pakistan in recent years have come back. That's the main indication that most of Al Qaeda elements have been detained. However, as the Americans have coined the sentence, "sleeping cells," those sleeping cells are everywhere in the world. They are not limited to Yemen. ...

There's concern in the United States that Yemen is a country that does not control its territory -- that large parts of Yemen are not directly under central government control. And therefore Yemen is an effective safe haven for Al Qaeda.

I think that's highly exaggerated. There are open desert areas where nomads rule everywhere, just like Baluchistan in Pakistan, so to speak. But that's not the whole of Pakistan, to be Baluch.

And there are areas in many countries in the region that are open land, open desert, that nomadic people always roam around. And it's almost a tradition -- that any foreigner or someone who is more or less trying to avoid the government, they go to these areas. But that's a very minor area. Even in terms of population, they don't make up even 1 percent of the people of Yemen; much less than that.

But it doesn't take--

So there are areas; I'm not saying that there are no areas. But that there are safe havens where the government cannot reach, that's not true. The government can reach anywhere.

If we continue detaining them against the law and the constitution, we will create more [Al Qaeda] sympathizers.

However, exactly where they are, there have been a couple of attempts and the government failed, just like any other government trying to track terrorists. The fact that, or the exaggeration is that there are areas that government cannot set foot in that area. That's not true. Absolutely not true.

Is the United States giving you sufficient aid?

As far as I know, both sides are satisfied with what's going on. [The U.S. is giving] their assistance to training and some equipping and monetary. Economic aid, the United States does not play a very significant role. ...

Is the United States then, in your opinion, missing something if they're providing some military training, but not enough butter for this country? Not enough social programs, economic aid? Are they missing the point? I mean, they say they're all behind the war on terrorism--

They say they will participate in the economic development in Yemen. So far, as far as I know, it's about $25 million-$30 million.

And that's not very much money?

No. ...

Why is Yemen a place where so many people have come from other countries? After the Afghan war ended against the Soviets, a lot of people weren't allowed to go back to their own countries.

Well, frankly, it was just post-unification that the war in Afghanistan ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. Immediately after unification, the state has not taken roots with all [of] it; [a] new state essentially was created. A lot of people found Yemen suitable for them to stay. You know, hundreds of them have been deported, by the way -- hundreds.

But they found Yemen, let's say, the least dangerous place for them, because the state was in a state of flux. The country was in a state of flux, just building new an institution. So it was easy for them to come and melt among the people. Some of them would find the work; some of them would get probably help and assistance from outside.

But after 1994 war and by 1996, 1997, the central government had a bigger role and a stronger role, and Yemen began deporting aliens, non-legal residents in 1996. As a matter of fact, Yemen was highly criticized by Amnesty International that Yemen is deporting them. At that time, they were more or less considered like political refugees. Yemen didn't believe that. They violated the residency law. ...

After unification, the religious parties had a strong position in some of the ministries, which led to a kind of indoctrination, some people have told me, in the Ministry of Education, some of the social services. Can you explain what happened there?

... For a period, yes. In education, that's true. But it started before unification. The north and the south, before unification, were in constant undeclared war. The so-called communist expansion and tied in the region Islamists grouped together to resist the expansion of communism that existed in the south. They used their most suitable means, so to speak, as an educational system. That existed before unification.

After unification, as a result of establishing a multi-party system, they took over important post in the Ministry of Education. A member of Islah became a minister of health as a result of coalition.

And so education became more--

And politicized, Islamicized, so to speak.

What has the government done to address that now?

Right now new curriculum is being drafted -- not, by the way, because of Sept. 11. But the curriculum before 1994 and during the crisis and immediately after the war was a mixture of former south, former north. It was not harmonious, so to speak, curriculum. Now I think if you meet anyone in the Ministry of Education, they will tell you that they have rewritten most of the curriculum up to -- I know it's finished until the ninth grade. And they are working on the second rephase of it.

What did they have to throw out?

Certain concepts, ideas. But they did not eliminate teaching Islam, of course, no.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, has found anti-Semitic text, and they've had to move to eradicate these from their textbooks. Is that the situation you found?

There could be in a minor way, but not as much as in Saudi Arabia. Frankly, as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, very harsh sentences about the West have creeped into all curricula of all schools, whether in Yemen or outside Yemen. That kind of, let's say, indoctrination, as far as I know, is being moderated.

Anti-American indoctrination?

Anti-Western.

Anti-Western. Can you give me an example of that?

They say that, you know, Western support for Israel is an extension of the Crusade, for example. That you find common. ...

I'm not saying that the education is free of anti-Western texts. But not a full chapter. It comes in between studying history, studying what we call nationalist. You have to link that to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It's a day-to-day material. ... The overall milieu -- if you use the word -- of social, educational, informational, of everyday substance is dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict. I'm sure you have been running around and you find people extremely concerned.

I think what you're saying is that American policy has to share some blame for what happened on Sept. 11?

I'm afraid I would say so, even though my American friends would not like it. Sometimes to blame, but not everything to blame. Not only American. I think those terrorists, if they had a chance to do it in London, in Berlin, in Paris, they would do it. ...

Who is Abu Hamza, and what's your case against him?

Abu Hamza, mostly he was definitely involved in the most tragic terrorist act ever committed in Yemen before Cole. That was the capture, which led to gunfight and I think I don't know, maybe three British, one American and one Australian. I don't remember it well. But that is the most dangerous act of terrorism ever committed in Yemen.

Abu Hamza came out several times, supporting and praising those who did it. His son was a member of that group. He just was lucky that he went to the eastern mountains to visit some people. We are told, or I am told that probably he was trying to establish a safe haven there when the incident took place. Now he has spent his sentence in jail. And he's back in London.

Abu Hamza, the father, is a terrorist, in your opinion?

I would not say he's committing acts of terrorism. But he is a promoter, a provocative terrorist. And to laymen, to uneducated people, he is to me equal to those who commit the acts of terrorism.

Like bin Laden?

Like bin Laden, OK.

So you would compare Abu Hamza with bin Laden?

I would compare Abu Hamza ideology with bin Laden ideology.

And his support of terrorism with bin Laden?

And his support of terrorism, but he's very clever. Apparently he has a very good lawyer, unlike bin Laden. Bin Laden being a fugitive, eventually, and do you know how long it took him to finally say, "Yes, I did it?"

But Abu Hamza lives in England, has a forum, has a mosque where he preaches. And he preaches terrorism. But United Kingdom say, "We have nothing in the books that make us arrest him." This is the same thing what the lawyer told you probably. ...

You're an advisor to the president. Is it making the president uncomfortable to have American advisors and FBI here in Yemen from the same country that's invading Iraq and selling guns and plans to the Israelis? Doesn't that put you or the president in a difficult position politically?

The military and security cooperation between Yemen and the United States did not come with Sept. 11. It dates back to the 1970s, to the late 1970s, early 1980s.

It picked up after 9/11?

It did pick up. You know, it was interrupted as a result of Yemen's position towards using force against Iraq--

In the first Gulf War?

In the first Gulf War.

You didn't go with the Americans.

We didn't go with the Americans. ...

You had a kind of break with the United States?

Yes, we did. Not break complete.

Not complete, but you had bad relations?

They suspended the annual in-kind and in-cash. It was $45 million. Military, security and development. It was $45 million a year. It dropped to $3 million. And now it's picking up.

And now it's picking up. But it seems, too, Americans are going to have a question. They're going to say, "You didn't support the United States in the first Gulf War. You're criticizing the attempts to invade Iraq now. Many people associated with Al Qaeda have been detained here. Some are still on the loose; you can't catch them. Whose side is Yemen on?"

Well, first of all, every country must assess what is its national interest. If the national interest of one country is not or is in conflict with the national interest of another country, I think that's the free unalienated right of that country, to disagree.

There is no reason why we should not disagree with the United States. And there is no reason why should not the United States disagree with us. But eventually it is looking into a national interest. Yemen is saying that war in Iraq, Arab-Israeli conflict, is endangering the national interest in Yemen.

But on the war on terrorism, you're with us?

The war in terrorist -- no, we are cooperating.

You're cooperating there?

Absolutely. I think we're cooperating more than your best friends.

During the civil war, [current] President Saleh was using the Islamists in the south to defeat the communists. This led to a close alliance between him and the Islah Party for a period of time, for the purposes of defeating the communists. Am I right?

... Yes. It is a fact that ... the Islamists became partners with the government to fight secession.

Of the government of Saleh?

Yes. And they played on a role on that. Now one does not deny it.

So after 1994, there's a kind of alli--

And immediately after 1994, frankly, they started acting especially in the south in a rather -- what they think religiously -- "We have been fighting infidels."

A jihad?

A jihad. Exactly.

Like against the Soviets?

Exactly.

Just against your own communists?

They thought they were doing that. ... They started establishing military training camps and so on. And the state had to confront them -- which happened. But confrontation did not take -- how do you call it -- pitched battles. It was by persuasion. It was by force. It was by arrest, until they were brought back to toe the line of the state, of the authority. That took some time.

The coalition government became of two parties only. A third party was excluded as a result of attempts on secession. That gave them greater strength. I was with them in the Cabinet. After 1994, they became stronger than they were before. ...

In what way is the presence of Al Qaeda in the country today, in whatever strength, a product of this period?

I think it's older, frankly. The jihad in Afghanistan. I mean, what's the roots of Al Qaeda? The same muhajadeen declared an organization. That's what Al Qaeda is. So a lot of those who fought in Afghanistan, many of them in Yemen and outside Yemen, consider themselves supporters, maybe members. But real official members -- I think they are very limited.

But a supporter can become a member?

Yes. Sympathetic and supportive. That happened not only in Yemen. It happened even in Lebanon, the most liberal country in the Middle East.

Sure, but we're here now talking about Yemen. Are [there] things that you have said to yourself [that] you could have done differently, and you wouldn't be facing this problem of chasing Al Qaeda's people around your tribal areas today?

The origin of jihad in Yemen originated in Saudi Arabia immediately after the withdrawal, just before the fall of the Soviet Union of a group of former southerners, whose fathers and brothers either were killed or evicted from Yemen, whose property was completely confiscated. It happened like, let's say, in East Germany or Bulgaria or anywhere when the communists took over.

Those who fought in Afghanistan were grouping. They were getting support from Saudi Arabia -- they themselves do not deny it -- in order to start a jihad against the communist system in South Yemen. What happened in between [is that] unification took place. Took place between who? Between the Congress Party and the Communist Party of South Yemen, and they resisted unification.

I have tapes and publications [of] that, because we negotiated from 1988 until 1990 about unification. They were against unification, because it will take place with those communists; the communists will took over the whole of Yemen, and the infidels will become the rulers.

So that's the origin of jihad in Yemen -- those who decided to infiltrate into South Yemen and to start fighting the Communist Party, who was in South Yemen. So answering your question, it's much older than just the declaring Al Qaeda. ...

Some people say that bin Laden had it in his mind that South Yemen was going to become his country?

Well, of course, you know, he comes from Hadramout.

His father came from Hadramout.

You know, frankly, maybe it's unfortunate for Yemen. I shouldn't say that, probably because in Islamic movements throughout history, persecuted Islamic sects, throughout history -- if you go back to Islamic history -- have always found a haven in Yemen, believe it or not, for 1,000 years and more. And therefore, even the Muslim Brothers, Hassan al-Banna, and those around him, they were involved in 1948 revolt because they thought that Yemen is a good safe haven. They believed that Islam is more pure in Yemen.

So Yemen as a target for persecuted Islamists, frankly, is a legacy of history in Yemen. This is a fact of history in Yemen.

So it's just natural that bin Laden would want to come to--

And therefore, it was natural, frankly. Now, bin Laden believes and others ... they think that the mountains of Yemen are the most fortified, the safest place to ever be there. And even they quote the prophet in a false hadith, [as] we call it: "If crisis prevails, you have to run to Yemen." And that is in the books for hundreds of years.

So I mean to say that this romantic notion in the minds of some Islamists in the Middle East and even East Asia -- that Yemen is a place to be safe against persecution. And that's why bin Laden thought for a long time, and still probably until today -- I'm told that he [told an interviewer] he dreamed and hoped that the mountains of Yemen will be a safe haven for him.

Would it surprise you if he showed up?

I declared at that time, I was foreign minister, I said, "I wish he could come because we will arrest him from the first moment he arrives and deliver him to Saudi Arabia."

But you can't get al-Harethi or al-Ahdal.

No, he is not that invisible a man. He could not be. This al-Harethi and Abu Hassan, whatever his name, al-Ahdal, you know, they don't walk with a big entourage of armies and cars and so on. He couldn't live that way. It's impossible.

[Editor's Note: On Nov. 4, 2002, an unmanned CIA aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying al-Harethi, killing him and five others.]

So you don't think bin Laden has come here?

No.

But he'd like to?

He thought at one time, but now, I think he considers Yemen as an American military base.

Is it?

He thinks so.

Are the Americans going to bring more troops here from Djibouti, as has been rumored?

No. There is full cooperation, and there is definitely no need for that. But what I mean is that this cooperation between Yemen and Saudi and United States, to bin Laden is, of course, anathema. I mean, probably for him, we are now infidel, because we are cooperating with the United States. I'm sure he thinks so; not only probably. ...

So are [Al Qaeda] coming back here? Do you have reports of them returning from Afghanistan across the Gulf of Oman?

No. Never. Some were arrested in Oman, and Oman has delivered them.

But some have come across?

They were coming.

The government made a statement the other day that you had about 20 or so that--

Yes, arrest coming through Oman, and the Omanis alerted the security people, and cooperated until they were arrested.

So, presumably, how are they getting in?

They come through Dubai. I think Dubai is a hot--

How do they get to Dubai?

Flying from Pakistan, flying from anywhere.

Or boats?

Dubai, you know, is one of the busiest airports -- not only in the Middle East, but in the whole region of Asia.

And they also come by boat, do you hear?

No. By boat, there were attempts, I think across from Somalia, but it's limited. But the land connection is much easier for them. And they are, of course, the only case. I mean, it doesn't mean that there is constant flow of those former Afghani muhajadeen coming to Yemen. But the case that was discovered by security people of Oman and Yemen is the only case so far since Sept. 11. ...

There were some incidents here in Yemen in which some bombs were placed at the security officers' building.

Yes, yes.

And some communiques were left or sent to some newspapers and government--

I was one of those who received them.

So you received a communique from the Sympathizers of Al Qaeda?

Yes.

People believed that the government caved in and released people as a result of that.

No. Not at all. ...

As I understand it, there were 108 [detained in Yemen.]

Right now, 109.

Yes, but there were 190 or 180.

Yes, but they were released because--

But it was after this incident of these bombings.

No. From the beginning of tracking extremists after Sept. 11, the number was large, yes. But then those who proved that they had in no way any activity, whether in Afghanistan or inside Yemen, were released. It was not because they put bombs somewhere, they throw a bomb to the French embassy or so on, that the government caved in and released them in order to buy its safety from them. This absolutely not true.

"To buy their freedom." But it's just a coincidental that it happened around the same time?

Yes. It is that the attorney general said, "I cannot detain those people. I have nothing." ...

But who are the Sympathizers of Al Qaeda? That's a group, capital "S," Sympathizers of Al Qaeda, that wrote these communiques. Who are these people?

Some of those probably are in jail today. ...

Five incidents this year, either bombings or foiled plots.

Yes. Yes. And I expect more.

So Al Qaeda's active here.

Now, I'll tell you those who get arrested after an incident, I know for sure what they say. They say, "We are defending our brothers. We are not defending Al Qaeda and Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Well, you're going to create more Al Qaeda if you arrest innocent people and create a group called Sympathizers with Al Qaeda.

Unless we put people into trial according to the laws.

According to due process?

According to due process. I think now FBI and CIA are more or less satisfied that nothing new will come out of this investigation of the Cole incident. I am not any more in government, but I hear that perhaps soon they will be put into trial.

Now, once they are put into trial -- if it takes the due process of the law -- and they are punished according to their crimes, not beyond what they have done or said, I think that will more or less reduce the pressure of those who sympathize with them.

But I agree with you. If we continue detaining them against the law and the constitution, we will create more sympathizers.

And more bombings?

And more bombings. Why not? We have lived under suppression during the royalist regime. And the more they put people in jail, the worse it becomes for them. This is the rule for every country which violates the law and does not bring justice equally to its citizens. ...

home - introduction - mapping the journey
inside the tribal areas - ground zero: pakistan
discussion - interviews - producers' dispatches - readings & links
producer's chat - teachers' guide - tapes & transcripts - press reaction - credits - privacy policy
FRONTLINE - wgbh - pbs

photograph ©afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS