Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s Journey “Into Al Qaeda Heartland”


May 29, 2012
In April 2003, while walking to his Baghdad home, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad hitched a ride with a group of journalists who were there to cover the U.S. invasion. After giving them a tour of the city, he was hired on the spot as a translator, and he went on to become an Iraq correspondent for The Guardian. He has also reported from Afghanistan, where he traveled with and was twice detained by the Taliban, and Libya, where he was also detained. Abdul-Ahad has received numerous accolades for his work, including the 2008 British Press Award for foreign reporter of the year. In Yemen, he has reported on Al Qaeda’s battle for Yemeni citizens’ hearts and minds, and Yemeni separatists’ rejection of Iranian support. Below are excerpts from his interview with FRONTLINE producer Jamie Doran about his trip to film Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Al Qaeda in Yemen

Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Afghanistan, has been weakened, especially after the killing of bin Laden. So Al Qaeda has resorted to working from different local areas, different franchises — Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria, Mali and Yemen.

And Yemen has emerged as the strongest of these local franchises of Al Qaeda. It’s from Yemen where all these plots in the past couple of years have originated. In Yemen, the landscape is far more difficult than the landscape in Iraq and other areas, so Al Qaeda has exploited that. All the components of a failed state exist in Yemen … so in a way it’s the perfect environment for an Al Qaeda operative.

The south of Yemen has been in a state of uprising for the past five years. Many people in the south of Yemen refer to the government forces as occupation forces, and Al Qaeda tries to play on this chord. They try to portray themselves as a resistance movement towards the northern occupation forces.

Gaining Access

It’s extremely difficult to contact Al Qaeda. … You start by establishing contacts with the elders, with the local people … and from there you build contacts. …

Maybe it helps being an Arab, being an Iraqi, being Arabic speaking. My director was also an Arab. Maybe that helped us get access to Al Qaeda. Also, while talking to them I could tell them about my previous experiences covering similar insurgencies in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan. That also kind of helped with this level of confidence.

Yet at the end of the day there is no guarantee that you, or anyone else, can get access to Al Qaeda.  It’s a risk. You have to establish some network of trust between you and them.  And it’s very, very, difficult to achieve. …

From the moment that you get that call, it’s extreme anxiety. This is an organization known for kidnapping journalists, detaining them for a long time, sometimes beheading them. So it’s a very, very, difficult choice.  Can you trust them?  Can you trust this man you’ve been talking to on the phone?  Are you being lured into an ambush?  Are you going to be kidnapped?  Are you going to be detained?  Extreme anxiety.

So from then you try to build a safety net. You take it for granted you’re being detained, you’re being kidnapped. What happens when I am kidnapped? Who am I going to call?  What’s the infrastructure I have? …

We also have to be very wary of the government forces.  We were undercover in Aden … Any journalist who ventures out of Aden without government permission — and that is very difficult to get — would be detained, deported.  So you are kind of fighting on two fronts.  You have the anxiety from Al Qaeda, and at the same time you have to basically run away from the government forces.

We were hiding in a small apartment for weeks until we managed to get the contact.  Once we had established contact with Al Qaeda, we had to drive; we had to hide the camera along the road.  My director was dressed in a burqa. We were both dressed as local Yemenis, pretending to be a Yemeni couple driving in a bus.  We hid the camera whenever we saw government check points, and then once you passed the last government check point, fortification, we had to skirt around it and drive through the desert into Al Qaeda heartland.

As we drove into the desert to go meet Al Qaeda — they told us there is a track we have to follow, but basically you drive in the middle of the desert. Our bus got stuck in the middle of the sand. There was no phone reception — very, very sketchy. The network would come, the network would go.

So the fear at that moment is yes, you have an appointment with your contact from Al Qaeda, but you are in their land. What if you hit a checkpoint? What if you hit a patrol of a group of Al Qaeda fighters and there’s no coordination between them? That is the real anxiety — that you get kidnapped along the way, trying to reach your contact.

It was a bit tense. The car was stuck. We managed to call our Al Qaeda contact.  He said we shouldn’t be scared, we are in Al Qaeda territory, and he would send a car to come pick us up.  We still waited for more than one hour, almost two hours, before his car came and picked us up. Then we followed his car, a sort of convoy into Ja’ar.

Al Qaeda’s Flag

It’s the most sinister image as a journalist to come across an Al Qaeda flag. It’s a very sinister thing — The black flag inscribed with the words “No god but one god,” and then the seal of the prophet. It has been associated within our psyche with horrible beheadings, these graphic Al Qaeda videos. In a way, it’s the pirate flags of the 17th, 18th century.

“Whether you like it or not, whatever happens from now on, it depends on their magnanimity. So you are in their area. It’s a very, very, scary feeling.”

So to drive along the road and to come to a checkpoint with that flag fluttering above … it has an impact on you. It’s very scary. You have moved from the point of making phone calls and having this anxiety and fear, to actually reach the land of Al Qaeda. There is no way out now. You are in their custody. Whether you like it or not, whatever happens from now on, it depends on their magnanimity. So you are in their area. It’s a very, very, scary feeling.

Trying to Film in Ja’ar

[Trying to film] was one of the most difficult issues working on this film. They give you access, they let you into the town, you have all these amazing conversations, all these amazing scenes happening around you, but most of the time they tell you to switch off the camera. At one point our contact was sitting at night talking to young people from Ja’ar and preaching to them, trying to market Al Qaeda, telling them how perfect Al Qaeda was. The scene was amazing — the whole scene was dark, only shadows lit by the moon in the corner of the street. Of course you can’t film, you can’t record, he says.

Any sort of commander, officer, political fighter would never talk to a journalist, let alone allow a journalist with a camera into their areas without having the highest permission. They are very paranoid when it comes to spies, infiltration into their area. They have executed people there. There are drones, as we’ve seen lately. There was a double agent who managed to infiltrate their organization, so they are very wary about infiltration.

And while we were in Ja’ar and other Al Qaeda-controlled towns, many of the fighters we were able to talk to wouldn’t be allowed to be filmed. They wouldn’t even have a cell phone. It was an organization devoted to its self-preservation, to its security.

His Contact, Fouad

Talking to Fouad, our Al Qaeda contact in Ja’ar, was very strange and different from all other Muslim insurgents I talk to. He, they, as an organization, have learned from what is going on in the Arab world at the moment, the Arab Spring. He almost marketed his organization as the avant-garde of the Arab Spring. He said that the Arab Spring was an Islamic revolution. They have started this Islamic revolution a long time before.

And you have to remember — you have to read the bin Laden letters. [Osama] bin Laden had been telling his followers for the past two years to rebrand the organization, to be close to the local population, to learn from their mistakes in Iraq. And Fouad was almost following these instructions to the letter. So he would talk about a state of services, a state of institutions. It was very strange because here you see this man with a keffiyeh around his head, a gun behind him, he looks very rough, you know bearded, but at the same time he’s very sophisticated in his conversation. He studied English literature in Sana’a University. So he’s different from your standard image of an insurgent sitting in a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan. This is a new generation of Al Qaeda, a generation that has learned from what is happening around them. …

For Fouad and many of the young people we talked to, they had these revolutionary wide eyes. He thinks that he’s building this Utopia, the ultimate, perfect Islamic society. They all have this image that the Muslim society was in its perfection 1,400 years ago, so they all want to go back into that ideal time in their minds and build it again there.

Ja’ar is really poor. It’s wretched. It’s filled with rubbish, garbage, animals eating garbage in the middle of the road, donkeys, sewage, all in the middle of the road. Poverty. Yet he points to all of this and says, “This is the ultimate just city because we’re implementing Sharia,” … as if they can close their eyes, they can forget all the wretchedness of the city and they can only see this perfect image of a society that they believe in.

Life in Ja’ar

By the end of our visit to Ja’ar, it was dusk and there was the call for prayer … There was almost a stampede at the mosque. Everyone’s rushing to go and pray. The shops are open, the merchandise left in the middle of the street. The guy selling falafel in the middle of the street, he leaves his stall and goes to the mosque.

And you have to ask yourself this question: Is this the most devoted town in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula, or are they rushed to prayers? And then of course the answer lies within. It’s Sharia. Because Al Qaeda is trying to implement Sharia, so they have these religious police units that go around the town forcing people to go and pray and leave their shops.

I asked Fouad what happens if someone doesn’t want to pray, and he says, “Well, we’ll go to them and convince them to pray.” And what if they don’t pray? “We will lock them up. We will give them some reading material until their convinced.” So the people are coerced to go and pray. But of course, by leaving the shops open, by leaving the merchandise in the middle of the street, it’s a sign to how much Al Qaeda has managed to enhance the security of the town … This is their ultimate achievement. “If you leave the merchandise in the middle of the street and you go and pray and nothing happens to it, look to us. This is the virtuous society that we’ve been trying to create.”

I went back to Ja’ar on my own without a camera and I talked to the townspeople. The people would tell you that yes, when Al Qaeda took over, the crime disappeared from the town. Al Qaeda chopped of the hands of three thieves, you know, stupid crimes, yet they got their hands chopped off. And that created a fear, terror within the society.

One of the farmers was telling me that now people speak in a soft voice when they go to the market, they stop shouting in the middle of the market because they’re scared of Al Qaeda … This is on one side.

On the other side, the same problems that Ja’ar was suffering from are still there — unemployment, poverty.  Al Qaeda [did] provide services; they stopped all the taxes in town. Electricity and water became free of charge. They connected different villages to the electricity grid of Ja’ar, and they did a few public projects trying to enhance their image amongst the population.

And some of the people would tell you yes, Al Qaeda, they’re not harming us. They gave us electricity. They’re not corrupt. Their judicial system is very swift, unlike the corrupt judicial system of the Yemeni government. The Sharia system is not corrupt and that is the success of Al Qaeda. It’s the same success they had in Afghanistan; it’s the same success they had in different places by implementing a non-corrupt system.

Meeting the Prisoners

I was told that Al Qaeda had detained 73 Yemeni government soldiers. I wanted to see them … I was told by many officers that the Al Qaeda force that attacked the camp was between 55 and 60 soldiers. It is inconceivable for a small unit of 60 fighters to achieve this kind of victory — kill 155 and detain 73. I really wanted to see, did they actually detain 73 officers? How were they kept? Were they tortured? Were they put in very bad conditions? It was essential for me to verify this fact. Had Al Qaeda detained 73 soldiers? If I can verify this, I can verify many other of their claims. …

It took Fouad some time to arrange for us to go and see the detained soldiers. For the first time he told us to hand over our mobile phones and to be blindfolded … And immediately, inside you as a journalist you’re thinking: “Aha, that’s the point we’re being kidnapped. That’s the point where we’re being lured into this ambush.” So of course you’re very anxious … You can’t run away, you’re in the middle of them. So we did give the phones, we did agree to be blindfolded. We had no other option.

We were driven in a car for 10 to 15 minutes and taken into this compound — very, very, well guarded. The soldiers there were different from the soldiers we had seen. They were more aggressive. They were very keen that the director wouldn’t film the compound of the forces to show them the images. It was very, very, aggressive. And some of them were dressed in Afghan shalwar kameez, very well armed, very well equipped. And then they opened the doors — heavy metal doors, dark rooms. And in these dark rooms we saw the detainees.

It was a very, very, difficult situation to be taken as a journalist to interview prisoners — almost the most difficult situation in the whole trip. I tried to apologies to the detainees. I have been detained before and I know how hard it is, how hopeless you are. You have no control. …

But also at the same time, by filming them, we had them on the record. We could establish the fact that those people had been detained. I was in Sana’a, and even in Sana’a people didn’t know how many people had been detained, who was detained, had they been released, had they not been released. And when I went to the prisoners, the prisoners themselves were very concerned about this fact. Like the whole of Yemen had forgot about them and they were very keen to get their message out and to talk to the camera, and to tell the government: “Please remember us. We are here. We fought. We used all of our bullets. Please get us out.”

But again it was a very, very, difficult situation to feel that you are part of. You’re going into their room escorted by their jailers. And your sympathy is of course with the detainees, not with the jailers. You want to help them, but you’re a detainee like them.

On Meeting the Head of Ansar al-Sharia

When we were leaving we were being blindfolded and then they kept us in the car waiting. They said, “Someone very important will come and talk to you.” And I thought: “OK, we’ve done something, now we’ll be detained. We’ll be put with the prisoners.”

And as we sat in the car, blindfolded, a man comes — I could hear him from the window. And he started addressing us. He had this very deep sinister voice.

He said: “Those are our detainees. The Sharia tells us that we can kill them or we can exchange them for prisoners, and we want to tell the Yemeni government that those people will be killed if negotiation doesn’t start very soon.”

We didn’t know who this person was. We were told he was a prominent commander. It was later when we saw Al Qaeda news footage of this trip, when we realized that the person who addressed us was Jalal al-Marqashi, a big Al Qaeda commander in the whole of the Abyan province — their emir, their supreme commander. Had I known this at the time I would be far more scared.

Also, his threat, in a way, has been fulfilled, because a week later negotiations did start between Al Qaeda and a delegation from the government, and the prisoners were released. We don’t know what Al Qaeda got in return, but we know that the prisoners were released.

Returning to Aden

Returning to Aden is not returning to a safe zone. Aden is a city gripped by chaos. Aden, like the rest of the south of Yemen, is living this uprising by the people of the south, the so-called separatists against the government of the north.

We followed a funeral, more than 10,000 people marching through the streets of old Aden into the cemetery. The people are very angry. It was a young girl who was being buried, 15-year-old girl … Surrounding the cemetery you see all these military positions. And the people in the cemetery, of course, are waving the separatist flags. They’re chanting against the government.

What do the soldiers do? They open fire into the crowd. They fire live bullets over the heads of the people, into the people. I mean, can you imagine the anger that that creates? Can you imagine the feelings of their people? Not only are they burying a little girl who was killed by the army, but here is the army firing into them. And that was repeated many times.

And that is basically what happens in Yemen. No Yemeni, even if he hates Al Qaeda, even if Al Qaeda is considered as this extreme terrorist organization, would sympathize with the government against Al Qaeda. And that is the dilemma of the south of Yemen. Who do you use to fight Al Qaeda? The government forces? The government forces are corrupt, are brutal, and are considered as a foreign occupation.

When you follow these demonstrations, when you see the separatists of South Yemen, they tell you what’s been happening in that country. For the past 15 years, their resources, their lands have been taken systematically by [former President] Ali Abdullah Saleh, his members of his family, all the people who run the government of North Yemen … The south of Yemen is not that different from Somalia in terms of poverty. So of course you have to sympathize with the civilians, with the demonstrators. They’re not different from all the demonstrations happening now in Tunis, in Cairo, in the rest of the Arab world. Yemen is not different from Syria. It’s civilians are calling for justice, for democracy.

When we were in Aden, we visited many schools that had become refugee camps. Tens of thousands of people living cramped into these schools, and they’ve all fled from towns controlled by Al Qaeda. …

When they talk to you they haven’t fled Al Qaeda. They’ve fled the military offensive. They’ve fled the shelling of the army, aerial bombardments, drones and Yemeni army fighter jets … That is creating far more anger amongst those people. They already hate the government and now they see it as a source of their suffering.

Traveling to Azzan

The real heart of Al Qaeda is a province called Shabwa … It’s a big wide desert with high mountains surrounding it that has been the traditional home of Al Qaeda because of the terrain. …

The tribes are very strong in Shabwa, unlike Ja’ar, where there is no tribal structure, where Al Qaeda managed to take over the city without confronting the tribes … For Al Qaeda to declare an Islamic state  inside Shabwa province, that’s a big, big achievement for them. …

We got a phone number for someone in Azzan. We asked permission and they said they would coordinate with the people we’ve seen in Ja’ar, and a week later, they came back to us and they said OK, we’re allowed to go and visit them.

That trip was longer than the first trip because we drove further into the heartland of Yemen. There it became so obvious to us how lawless the area is, how the Yemeni government has actually no control over these wide areas. The last government presence we saw was on the outskirts of Aden. And from there to the end of Shabwa province — a few hundred kilometers — we couldn’t see one Yemeni soldier. All what we saw [was] Qaeda checkpoints with their black Al Qaeda flags, or tribal checkpoints. No government whatsoever. No one controls the land …

To drive through that land we needed the ultimate escort, we needed someone who could protect us within the tribes and from Al Qaeda. So one of my friends, Abdul Raheem al-Awlaki, a separatist leader from Aden, he’s a very, very, prominent member of the Awalik tribe, which is the biggest tribe in Shabwa, agreed to take us with him in the car to provide us with his tribal protection … We were the guests of his tribe, basically. So no tribesman would come and harm us because they would have to go into confrontation with all of his tribe.

Yet Al Qaeda itself would be very reluctant to harm us because we were guests of his tribe, so that bestows upon us the protection of 1 million tribesmen. Al Qaeda would have to fight the tribe if they did anything to us.

When you reach Azzan, you feel it’s more sinister than Ja’ar. It’s more isolated. More fighters are standing at the checkpoints. They have their flags. They have their armored carrier vehicles they have looted from the government forces. The town is more desolate, more empty, heavily guarded.

And there in Azzan, to signify why it’s more important, we saw foreign soldiers. Because they are isolated in the middle of the desert, Al Qaeda would feel more confident sending its foreign fighters into the middle of the street. I saw an Afghan in Azzan. I saw a Somali trying to have a conversation with him, he didn’t even speak Arabic. They’re more confident. They are not worried. Very few people would manage to infiltrate that town.

You definitely feel more tense in Azzan. We were escorted by three Al Qaeda operatives. One of them was a Saudi. They were very, very strict … I had many conversations with judges, clerics in Azzan and they wouldn’t let us film, because no one was allowed to be filmed, to even have his voice recorded by the camera. No one was allowed to carry a cellphone.

You have to remember, it was in Azzan, the outskirts of Azzan, where [American born cleric Anwar] al-Awlaki’s son was killed. They took us to that spot and they showed us where he and eight of his friends were killed. So they’re very, very, paranoid. Far more than in Ja’ar. They’re scared of anyone identifying any target in Azzan.

You have to feel sympathetic to the people of South Yemen, the people of Azzan, the people of Shabwa. They are in a very difficult situation. They are in the middle of this empty desert. They haven’t seen anything from the government; they are left on their own. Then they see Al Qaeda. They don’t see anything problematic with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is fighting America, and America is far away. For the people of South Yemen, they haven’t seen America, they will never see America, and they don’t really care about what happens between Al Qaeda and America. Yet they would get the wrath of America. It’s American bombs that will fall on them … The people in the south themselves are in the middle of this uprising against the government, yet they see themselves dragged into a bigger conflict.

Al Qaeda’s New Modus Operandi

You have to remember that Al Qaeda, at the end of the day, is a small organization — a few hundred men. Very motivated, highly motivated, well trained, well equipped, yet very few hundred of them in the middle of a vast sea of tribesmen. They do, at the end of the day, depend on the tribes to survive. It’s a very, very difficult relationship. They have to accommodate to the tribal honors, tribal structure.

I talked to a judge in Azzan, and he was telling me that their ultimate nightmare is to fight the tribes. He told me how they’ve learned from their mistakes of Iraq, when Al Qaeda went into confrontation with the tribes, so-called “Sahwa” (or “Awakening”), and that Sahwa drove the Al Qaeda out of Iraq. It wasn’t the surge; it was the tribesmen of Iraq who fought Al Qaeda.

They’ve learned from that mistake. They are very keen to establish relationships with the neighboring tribes. You have to remember, many of Al Qaeda people, like al-Awlaki, like Fahd al-Quso, they come from that region. They come from these tribes. So the tribe wouldn’t fight its own people, its own sons.

Yet they do depend on the hospitality of the people around them. If the millions of tribesmen of South Yemen decide collectively one day that they would like to kick out Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda cannot exist in South Yemen for 24 hours. It will just disappear. Al Qaeda’s ultimate enemy is not the drones, but the tribesmen of South Yemen. …

“If the millions of tribesmen of South Yemen decide collectively one day that they would like to kick out Al Qaeda … It will just disappear. Al Qaeda’s ultimate enemy is not the drones, but the tribesmen of South Yemen.”

[Azzan was] is in the middle of nowhere in the south of Yemen in this kind of very, very isolated region — yet here this organization has devoted a part of its resources to a media wing of the organization. You have two kids, they’re using computers, they’re printing, they are writing. It’s like sort of a newsletter they hand out at the checkpoints. They burn CDs; they have posters for films. So yes it’s a small office, but it’s very sophisticated. They call it the Dawa branch of the organization.

And that’s why they are very successful in their existence. They haven’t devoted all their energy to fighting the Americans, but actually they have created different branches — branches that work to “educate the locals,” a branch to do services. And by that they are putting roots within the society.

For example, one of the judges I talked to, he was telling me how did they take over the town. Al Qaeda doesn’t roll its armored vehicles or pick-up trucks and take over a town. They establish one of these Dawa centers, one of these media offices. And they put them in a town and they start spreading the message, giving leaflets, giving CDs, creating a small nucleus of people who would be sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Then Al Qaeda would come, based on the invitation of that group of people, and establish roots within a local society. So they don’t impose themselves by means of their military power but they exist within the society gradually. They grow into a society. …

It was very strange to hear talk about hearts and minds. This was the core of the American policy in Iraq. This is how they have been trying to market their campaigns, winning hearts and minds. So to see Al Qaeda use the same kind of terminology and actually, physically run a campaign of hearts and minds — the electricity, the water, the law and order — it all plays into their campaign. …

So Al Qaeda now in this new incarnation, post-Osama bin Laden, is trying to run itself on two levels. On one side, it works as a social organization, an organization implementing Sharia, creating that virtuous utopian society we’ve been talking about, providing services, providing justice.

At the same time, there’s another core of Al Qaeda, another part of that organization that is isolated from the local population, that continues to plot works against America, against other western targets and tries to fight its global war.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula/Ansar al-Sharia

Osama bin Laden, in his letter, had debated whether they should re-brand Al Qaeda and give it a different name. And that’s exactly what’s been happening in Yemen. They’ve given the name Ansar al-Sharia to their fighters on the ground.

They’ve achieved two things: First, to point to Ansar al-Sharia and they say: “This is not the international Al Qaeda. This is a group of local people who support Sharia,” Muslim fighters, in a way. They can separate the organization between the local fighters on the ground, securing the town, securing the areas and the higher leadership that is engaged in all their plots against western targets.

It’s a very, very, clever plot. And many people in Yemen still think that it’s two distinct organizations, two allied organizations. But once we went there, once we talked to them, and once we saw their own literature, archives, we saw how clearly they refer to themselves as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Winning Over The Tribes

For Al Qaeda, the Yemeni government, Yemeni troops are not the problem. The longer they fight them, the bigger the image they have as a resistance force. And at the end of the day, they can easily leave all these towns and go back to their mountains and their hideouts in the desert.

You can never defeat Al Qaeda by military force. It wasn’t defeated in Pakistan, it wasn’t defeated in Afghanistan, and it’s not defeated in Iraq by military force. It can only be defeated when the people of South Yemen realize that it’s not in their benefit to have an Al Qaeda military camp next door.

And that’s been happening … Al Qaeda used to be in Lawdar, a year ago. But there was a tribal feud; Al Qaeda killed a tribal elder in Lawdar. The people in Lawdar turned against Al Qaeda. Not violently, but they pushed them out of the town. And since then, Al Qaeda apparently has been trying to get back to Lawdar … When they reached the outskirts of the town, the people of the town were there [with] hunting rifles, Kalashnikovs.

It was the first military defeat of Al Qaeda. They lost faith … When we were driving in and out of that area, we saw Al Qaeda handing out leaflets, trying to explain the situation in Lawdar. It caused a massive disruption in their lines.

I visited Lawdar … The whole town has been geared to fight. The streets were empty, the markets were empty. But of the local villagers, every single man was carrying a gun. Every single man would go to the front, spend an hour or two fighting at the frontline and come back. There was no structure. There was no military hierarchy. [It was a] bunch of townspeople in their sarongs, in their flip-flops, old Kalashnikovs, old hunting rifles, manning a frontline behind a concrete wall and firing from there at the lines of Al Qaeda.

But also in 2010, 150 Yemeni clerics and tribal elders and religious leaders issued a collective fatwa calling for jihad if America had sent troops on the ground. This is the main risk.  Amongst the tribes now there is this agreement that if you fight alongside the Al Qaeda, the separatists, or the government army, you are killed. Your tribe will not take your revenge. And that’s been a sort of a statement agreed upon so that the tribes will not be dragged into this semi-civil war that’s happening in the South of Yemen.

But if foreign forces are seen to be fighting on the ground in Yemen, this will be extremely difficult to control … If you see American warships off the coast of Aden, if you see American soldiers on the ground, that will complicate the situation.


In Ja’ar and most of the towns controlled by Al Qaeda, or most of the southern towns in general, there is this anxiety, fear, stemming from the drones. Whenever you hear the sound, not only Al Qaeda, you know the normal people would almost freeze in their spots. They would point at it. There are drones, there are jet fighters, and they’ve seen the results of it.

Many Al Qaeda fighters have been killed by it. The activity of the drones has increased dramatically in the past year. But also the civilians have been killed. In al-Majalah, 64 civilians were killed two years ago in different places and that creates a level of anxiety, a level of fear that there is this demon in the skies in South Yemen that no one can control. And that in itself has led many people to leave Al Qaeda areas, not because they’re scared of Al Qaeda but because they’re scared of the drones that come from the sky.

Yemen is a very troubled society and the highest tribal activity is taking revenge. So drones here have a dual effect on the society. Yes, they are killing Al Qaeda commanders; yes, they are kneecapping the organization, if you want to say that, but at the same time they could work as the perfect recruiting tool for Al Qaeda itself.

By being targeted by the drones they are targeted by the Americans. They can point to themselves and say: “Look we are the enemies of America. We are fighting America.  We’re not a bunch of wretched poor people in a desolate town in the south of Yemen. We are fighting a global war against America. Here is this mighty empire coming all the way to fight us.” And that would work perfectly as a propaganda tool for Al Qaeda.

For example, when we are driving through Ja’ar, and we stopped and Fouad picked up a newspaper and was pointing to the headline and the headline said: “Yemen Air Force Bombs Al Qaeda Targets.” He was very adamant to point out that this was a drone attack. He had video footage of the bombs. He had footage of his friends who were killed. They were on top of a mountain using their phones, they were targeted.

But he almost was a proud person to be targeted by a drone, because for him, he’s a worthy enemy of America. So it kind of elevates him, it gives him more prominence amongst the tribes, amongst the elders. And that would work for his interest and he can also point and use it to discredit the Yemeni government. He can say, “Look this is a weak government, this government is being controlled by the Americans. The government they are lying, they’re saying we’re bombing Al Qaeda but really it’s the Americans.”  …

If drone attacks end in so-called collateral damage and civilians are killed, this would push a fair number of Yemeni tribesmen to join Al Qaeda. Not because they believe in the rhetoric, not because they believe in the project, but just to take revenge.

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