“I Had to Make Peace With Death”: A Q&A With “Targeting Yemen” Filmmaker Safa Al Ahmad
A still from filmmaker Safa Al Ahmad's documentary "Targeting Yemen."
And yet, she says the risks of filming her latest documentary, Targeting Yemen, went beyond all of those. “It’s the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, I think, professionally,” Al Ahmad says. “I had to make peace with death.”
In order to investigate the escalating U.S. fight against Al Qaeda in Yemen and its impact on civilians, Al Ahmad traveled to drone strike territory to talk to survivors and witnesses. Unlike the front lines of a conventional battle, she says, drone strikes are unpredictable, making it difficult to calculate which risks to take as a journalist.
Al Ahmad also traveled to the sites of two U.S. ground raids, including the Navy SEAL raid that made headlines days after President Donald Trump was inaugurated. One of the survivors of that raid was Sheikh Abdulillah Al Dhahab, who had not been interviewed about what happened until he spoke to Al Ahmad.
Al Ahmad says she was drawn to this story because the Dhahab family featured so heavily in the 2017 ground raid on the village of Yakla. Some members of the family had ties to Al Qaeda, while others joined the sides fighting Al Qaeda. She spoke to FRONTLINE about how the family’s complexities reflect the complexities of Yemen, about the dangers she faced, and what she hopes viewers take away from the documentary.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Yakla raid made headlines because of the death of an American soldier. What made you want to dig deeper into the story?
I’ve been obsessed with the Dhahab family for a while, and I’ve been really interested in trying to find a way to tell their story. It didn’t end up in the film but Tariq, the head of the family, the brother of Abdulillah, was the one who declared an Islamic state in Baydah province and pledged allegiance to [Al Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri — and one of his brothers is the one who killed him. It was such an epic family drama, on an international scale.
I keep thinking about how to tell the complexities of Yemen… I thought this story of the family would be a really good way into this… The Yakla raid just accentuated the prominence of the story.
In 2012, I had filmed where [American preacher and spokesperson for Al Qaeda in Yemen Anwar] al-Awlaki’s son was killed in a drone strike, and obviously his daughter Nawar was killed in the [Yakla] raid. …So if you try to tell the story of this family, you kind of tell the bigger story of what’s going on in Yemen.
Early in the film, there’s a moment where you get a phone call from someone and you’re going to be picked up and taken to Yakla. Who was that, and how did you know you could trust them?
I’ve been trying to build my relationships with several people that could give me access… I’ve been doing Yemen since 2009, and part of it is knowing enough people so you can have a network of security, so it’s not just one person. One person knows this other person, and this other person vouches for… it’s like a chain, and I like to think of it as the godfather. Who’s my godfather in this place I’m going to that will go the extra mile to protect me if anything were to happen? And Yemen still has that code of ethics.
A lot of it is trust. Just as much as I have to trust them, they have to trust me. It’s a two-way street. I spend a lot of time with them, just talking, getting them to understand where I’m coming from. I give them my films to watch, so they have an idea of what kind of journalism I’m interested in doing. …
You’ve reported in the past from very dangerous situations, from Al Qaeda and Houthi-held territory. But this time you’re in drone strike territory in the middle of an ongoing war — were there unique dangers or challenges you hadn’t faced before?
It’s the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, I think, professionally. I had to make peace with death. That’s the thing about drone strikes. They’re not like front lines. You can’t say, “They’re over there, so I’m not going to go that way.” Drone strikes have no rhyme or reason, at least for me on the ground. We were driving at night, we were driving in a vehicle that travels a lot, we were driving to a location that’s always been droned, which is the point of my story. There’s no way of calculating how to stay safe. …
The main highways leading into Yakla were all cut off, so most of it was off-road. If anything did happen, there was no saving us. …
We drove a bit out of Yakla, because I wanted to film the drone strikes around the village. You have the front lines with the Houthis, the Yemeni government, ISIS and [Al Qaeda]. Sometimes they’re active, and sometimes they’re not, so it’s a hit-and-miss situation. The driver that was with us stopped at his mom’s house… the entire family got in the car. We were smooshed, and I’m really pissed off because I can’t film properly because there are so many people in the car.
I get out, I film the drone strike, and in my frame I see this motorbike passing through, and there was jihadi music blasting from the motorbike. And I’m like, this can’t be good. I get into the car, and they’re waiting for us just ahead. We stop the car and they start shouting at the [driver]. They’re assuming I’m an evil foreigner and [the people in the car are] getting money in exchange for me to come film. So it was a really intense fight between the older man and these two teenage, snotty kids from ISIS. They were demanding the car keys from the driver, and it became really antagonistic.
Then this woman gets out of the car. She recognizes that one of the boys is from the village. She holds him by the arm and tells him, “You are going to let us go.” She stops her son from getting out… She knew if the men get out, then somebody’s going to have to be shot. And I’m like, “That’s it, we’re not getting out of here without somebody being killed.” I could not see another scenario. And this woman, she did this amazing thing. She just physically blocked the [ISIS] guy, held on to him and said, “You’re going to let us go.” And the kid was so embarrassed, he was telling the other guy, “We have to go. Just let them go.”
If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I’d be alive today. … But then this woman, she gets back in the car, she has this orange lollipop and she’s just sucking on it as we’re driving back. She’s cool as a cucumber. … We’ll never forget that night until the day we die. …
How did you convince people to talk to you? Were they wary, or did they want to tell their stories?
…One of my biggest problems when I was interviewing people is that they were afraid to tell the truth. Not because they wanted to lie, but just because they didn’t know what would get them into trouble. Now, if your neighbor hosts a guest who happens to be Al Qaeda, the entire village is an acceptable target. So they can’t say, “Yeah, my neighbor had a…” Because they’re afraid that that would take away their rights as a civilian, as in, “I was an innocent person.” They weren’t lying to me because they wanted to lie to me. They weren’t telling the whole truth because they didn’t know how that would impact them. …
Sheikh Abdulillah al-Dahab — what are some of the nuances of his situation that you hope an American audience understands?
I’m hoping that even if they’re confused, it’s a good confusion as in, “Oh, this is not clear cut.” Just because of his brother-in-law was [Anwar] al-Awlaki doesn’t mean every member in his family was Al Qaeda. There are people in the family, direct relatives, who are Houthis, who are on the other side of that front line fighting them. …
For some reason, Yemenis are not given the understanding that, for example, in your family you always have that racist uncle, right? Nobody’s saying that the entire family are a bunch of racists. They’re the same thing. They’re just normal, human complex families… Just see them as that. Give them the respect of being complicated human beings just like everybody else.
Yet, the problem is that they’re in the middle of a war where people want to easily pinpoint someone and say, “They are my enemy,” when the situation is not like that on the ground. …
Why was it important to you to get the Yemeni side of these ground raids and drone strikes?
Obviously, I think Yemen is an important story. Obviously, I think if you’re going to talk about people, you should go talk to them. It’s just basic respect for other human beings. It really bothered me that everyone was just talking about the Americans, and even Nawar [al-Awlaki] was in relation to Anwar [al-Awlaki] who was an American citizen. The other civilians, they weren’t given any names, they weren’t given any details. It was like an aside to the story. …
This is part of the struggle when you construct stories on foreign countries, when it comes to the American public. I think we’ve done [the American public] a disservice, by not doing more of this. …We impact the world, we should understand it. An informed public is the only way there can be a functioning democracy. That is our duty as a democracy, to be informed.
When the people in Yemen heard this might be on American TV, did they have any messages?
When I was doing the interview with Abdulillah, one of the things that he kept repeating was, “Don’t they have international law? Don’t they have human rights? Don’t they have a basic understanding of what is terrorism to the people in Yemen?” …
At the end of the film, when [Abdulillah] says, “I stopped going out. Even if I was a legitimate target to the U.S., why are you targeting the entire village?” That’s collective punishment to him.
School hasn’t opened in the two years since the raid. Teachers are too afraid to go in to teach. All the kids that you saw in the film have not gone to school for two years. …[There is] a generation that will not be able to go to school.