Simon Norfolk/Institute, for The New York Times
The village of Rihab in Wadi Dawan, a valley that is the ancestral home of Bin Laden. More Photos »
By ROBERT F. WORTH, Published: July 6, 2010
Just before dawn on Dec. 24, an American cruise missile soared high over the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, arced down toward the dark mountains above the Rafadh Valley in Yemen’s Shabwa province and found its mark, crashing into a small stone house on a hillside where five young men were sleeping. Half a mile away, a 27-year-old Yemeni tribesman named Ali Muhammad Ahmed was awakened by the sound. Stumbling out of bed, he quickly dressed, slung his AK-47 over his shoulder and climbed down a footpath to the valley that shelters his village, two hours from the nearest paved road. He already sensed what had happened. A week earlier, an American airstrike killed dozens of people in a neighboring province as part of an expanded campaign against Al Qaeda militants. (Although the U.S. military has acknowledged playing a role in the airstrikes, it has never publicly confirmed that it fired the missiles.)
Ahmed soon came upon the shattered house. Mangled bodies were strewn among the stones; he recognized a fellow tribesman. Scattered near the wreckage were bits of yellow debris with the words “US Navy” and long serial numbers written on them. A group of six or seven young men were standing in the dawn half-light, looking dazed. All were members of Al Qaeda. Among them was Fahd al-Quso, a longtime militant who is wanted by the F.B.I. for his suspected role in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. The missile had struck in one of the most remote and inaccessible valleys on earth, in a place where Al Qaeda has been trying to establish a foothold. Quso was the local cell leader and had been recruiting young men for years. Ahmed knew him well.
I met Ahmed several weeks later in Sana, the Yemeni capital, where he works part time as a bodyguard. By that time, Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch had claimed credit for a failed effort to detonate a bomb in a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day, igniting a global debate about whether Yemen was the next front in the war on terror. Yemen’s once-obscure vital statistics were flashing across TV screens everywhere: it is the Arab world’s poorest country, with a fast-growing and deeply conservative Muslim population of 23 million. It is running out of oil and may soon be the first country in the world to run out of water. The central government is weak and corrupt, hemmed in by rebellions and powerful tribes. Many fear that Al Qaeda is gaining a sanctuary in the remote provinces east of Sana, similar to the one it already has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the day I met him, Ahmed – a small, rail-thin man with a bony face – seemed still awed and a bit frightened by what happened in his valley. He was dressed in a tattered blazer and a futa, the patterned cloth skirt Yemeni men often wear. He sat on a sofa leaning forward with his hands on his thighs, glancing occasionally at me. We were in a small, sparely furnished office belonging to Ahmed’s employer and friend Abdulaziz al-Jifri, who had given him permission to speak. It was evening, and in the room next door men could be heard laughing and chatting as they drank tea and chewed khat, the narcotic leaf Yemenis use to relax.
“We took the bodies under the trees,” Ahmed continued in a quiet voice. “One was from my tribe. He had just joined Al Qaeda, and that was his first night sleeping with them.” He paused, and I caught a hint of defensiveness, perhaps also of anger, in his eyes. He seemed reluctant to stray from his narrative, but it was clear that he felt the bombing was an injustice. “We knew they were Qaeda, but they were young, and they hadn’t done anything, and they were locals,” he said. “They came and went at checkpoints, and the government didn’t seem to care. So we dealt with them normally.. . .
“Later I took the bodies to the graveyard,” he went on to say. “Then I talked with Fahd’s cousin about what we should do about him.”
Within an hour, Ahmed said, the discussions expanded, and Ali al-Asowad, the aging sheik of the Abdullah tribe, was summoned from his house. The sun was rising over the arid brown hills around Rafadh and soon almost 100 people were sitting under the spreading boughs of an acacia tree for an emergency tribal meeting.
Dozens of people spoke. Some were angry. Most people in the valley were related to the dead men or knew them. The victims had scarcely stood out in Rafadh, where everyone carried weapons and hatred of the Yemeni government was nothing unusual. What did it matter that they hated America and called themselves Qaeda? Some of the tribesmen also spoke in defense of Fahd al-Quso, who moved to the area in 2007. His grandfather had a house there, so he had a right to the tribe’s protection. But others stood up and shouted angrily that Quso had put the whole tribe in needless danger by basing himself in their village; more American bombs might be coming soon.
The people of Rafadh had decisions to make, ones that might soon ramify across all of Yemen’s remote mountains and deserts and even half a world away in the Pentagon. What did Al Qaeda mean to them? Was it worth protecting? A bargaining chip to be used against a neglectful government? Or just an invitation to needless violence?
SANA RESEMBLES A FORTRESS, not just in its architecture but in its geography. It is set on a high plateau, surrounded by arid, craggy mountains. At its heart is the Old City, a thicket of unearthly medieval towers and banded spires that stands out sharply in the dry desert air. This was the entire city until a few decades ago, its high walls locked every evening at dusk. Today Sana is a far more sprawling place, with Internet cafes and swarms of beat-up taxis and a sprinkling of adventure tourists. The Old City gates are mostly gone now, and although men still carry the traditional daggers known as jambiyasin their belts, they also wear blazers, often with cheap designer logos on their sleeves. Like other Arab capitals, it is full of policemen, and there are occasional checkpoints manned by bored-looking soldiers in camouflage uniforms.
But Yemen is different. Beneath the familiar Arab iconography, like pictures of the president that hang in every shop, there is a wildness about the place, a feeling that things might come apart at any moment. A narcotic haze descends on Yemen every afternoon, as men stuff their mouths with glossy khat leaves until their cheeks bulge and their eyes glaze over. Police officers sit down and ignore their posts, a green dribble running down their chins. Taxi drivers get lost and drive in circles, babbling into their cellphones. But if not for the opiate of khat, some say, all of Yemen – not just those areas of the south and north already smoldering with discontent – would explode into rebellion.
One morning in Sana, I discovered a crowd of people protesting in the stone courtyard outside the cabinet building. Many had shackle scars on their wrists and ankles. They came from an area called Jaashin, about 100 miles south of the capital. But some of them, I found, did not even know that Jaashin was in the Republic of Yemen. Their only real ruler was the local sheik, Muhammad Ahmed Mansour, who is, it turns out, a kind of latter-day Marquis de Sade. Mansour is also a poet, who earns extra license for his cruelties by writing florid odes to Yemen’s president. Some pilgrims from Jaashin said they were imprisoned, shackled and beaten by the sheik – who maintains his own army and several prisons – after refusing to relinquish their property to him. I asked Ahmed Abdu Abdullah al-Haithami, a bent old farmer in a tattered green jacket, what country he was living in. He looked up at me with imploring eyes. “All I know is that God rules above, and the sheik rules here below,” he said. All of this, I later learned, was documented by Yemeni lawyers, who have been working on behalf of the people of Jaashin for years to little effect. As one lawyer, Khaled al-Alansi, put it to me, “If you can’t fight sheik Mansour, how can you possibly fight Al Qaeda?”
Two thousand years ago, the area east of Sana held one of the earth’s most prosperous kingdoms, a lush agricultural region of spices and fruits, fed by irrigation canals from a vast man-made dam. The Romans called Yemen “Arabia Felix,” or Happy Arabia. Today, the eastern region is an arid wasteland. Most people scrape by on less than $2 a day, even though they live atop Yemen’s oil and gas fields. There are few ways to make a living other than smuggling, goat-herding and kidnapping. The region is also, chronically, a war zone. Tribal feuds have always been part of life here, but in recent years they have grown so common and so deadly that as much as a quarter of the population cannot go to school or work for fear of being killed. The feuds often devolve into battles with bands of raiders mowing down their rivals with machine-gun fire or launching mortars into a neighboring village. No one knows how many people die in these wars, but Khaled Fattah, a sociologist who has studied Yemen’s tribes for years, told me that hundreds of victims a year is a conservative estimate.
Every time I drive out of Sana I get an ominous sense of going backward in time to a more lawless era. As the city’s towers fade in the distance, the houses drop away into level desert and occasional piles of construction rubble. The traffic thins out and consists mostly of pickup trucks carrying tribesmen with patterned cloth kaffiyehs tied around their heads. You pass the first of several checkpoints, where skinny soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms warily circle the car, looking for weapons or kidnapping victims. You pass towering, desolate mountains of black and brown igneous rock. Once you’re out of Sana province, there are virtually no signs of the Yemeni state. Every able-bodied man seems to carry an AK-47 rifle over his shoulder; it’s not uncommon to see rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. Only the oil and gas fields, hidden behind wire fences and vigilantly watched over by the Yemeni military, seem to merit the government’s attention.
Last year I expected to see at least a few government soldiers when I visited the ancient city of Shibam in Hadramawt, the vast eastern province where Osama bin Laden’s father was born. A few months earlier, four South Korean tourists were blown up by a suicide bomber as they admired the view of Shibam from across the valley. I was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” my guide said, patting my shoulder as we walked up to the ridge where the Koreans died. “Ever since the bombing they have put this place on high security.” But when we got to the top of the ridge there was not a single soldier or policeman to be seen. We gazed out over the valley in silence. A sign stood nearby, showing a pair of binoculars and the words in English “Discover Islam.” As we began to leave, my guide smiled broadly and gestured at the sign. “The Koreans – they discovered Islam,” he said, giggling at his joke.
Even in the capital, law and order often mean less than they do in other Arab countries. One afternoon I was having tea with Abdulaziz al-Jifri when a shot rang out nearby. I thought nothing of it; it might have been a firecracker or someone testing a gun. We were in the safest area of the city, a neighborhood called Hadda, where rich Yemenis and foreign diplomats have built an enclave in recent decades. But Jifri got up from the cushion where he was sitting to go see what happened. He came back 15 minutes later with a look of surprise on his face. A friend of the family, a wealthy tribal figure, had been shot dead a block away. The victim, Jifri explained, was walking up to the gate of his home when someone apparently shot him once in the head. There were no witnesses and no one even bothered to call the police, who are so corrupt and incompetent that most people view them as useless.
“There is no law in Yemen,” Jifri said, shaking his head. We went on drinking tea and talking politics.
By then, I had spent at least a dozen afternoons at Jifri’s house. He was a unique figure: educated in Britain and Saudi Arabia, he was designated by his father – a wealthy businessman with political connections – as a liaison to the tribes in Shabwa and Marib, two of the main areas where Al Qaeda is said to find sanctuary. He is tall and handsome, with large, mischievous brown eyes and a knack for setting a room on fire with laughter. His family are sayyids, or descendants of the prophet Muhammad, and that gave them a special status in the caste like social hierarchy that prevailed until Yemen’s republican revolution in 1962. Even now, the Jifris are trusted and respected like few other clans in rural Yemen.
Jifri became my link to rural Yemen. There was no way for me to travel to Shabwa or Marib undetected, I was told. So day after day I would sit on a cushion beside him in the family’s rectangular living room as various sheiks and relatives from those provinces arrived to sip tea, chew khat and talk until dark about what was happening among the tribes. It was there that I met Ali Muhammad Ahmed, along with others from the area around Rafadh, in Shabwa province, the valley where the cruise missile struck on Dec. 24. The Jifris themselves have a house in the Rafadh Valley.
Rafadh, several hundred miles southeast of the capital, is in some ways typical of the areas where Al Qaeda found refuge in Yemen. It is set among dry mountains populated by baboons, there are no paved roads and cars must travel laboriously along dirt tracks that wind among the hills. There is no public water supply or electricity and no functioning school. The valley was largely peaceful during the 1970s and ’80s, when the socialist government that ruled South Yemen – a separate country until it united with the north in 1990 – tried to eradicate tribalism. But since then Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has encouraged tribal practices, and the feuds have returned. Rafadh itself has been devastated by a tribal conflict that has raged for years, killing at least a dozen people and wounding many more in an area with only a few hundred inhabitants.
Ahmed played a central role in the feud. In 2006, Ahmed’s father and older brother were gunned down by men posing as customers at the father’s market stall. Afterward, he told me, he drove the bullet-riddled bodies to the nearest police station to ask for justice. The police captain in charge waved him off dismissively, he said, telling him, “You tribes are always causing trouble – deal with it yourself.”
He did. Ahmed gathered five cousins and together they hunted down and shot two men they believe were among the killers and three other men who were sheltering them. The feud briefly threatened to escalate into a broader war. The government promised to mediate but failed to do so, and the feud grew with further kidnappings and clumsy army suppression. Many local people felt the government was largely to blame.
It was then that Fahd al-Quso, the Al Qaeda figure, arrived in the valley. He had roots in the area but, perhaps more important, he was an outlaw to the Yemeni authorities, and that alone earned him a welcome in Rafadh. The United States wanted him in connection with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. The Yemeni police arrested his younger brother, a tactic aimed at pressuring Quso to turn himself in.
“Fahd was a victim in the eyes of the tribes,” Ahmed told me. “They accepted what he said. People distrust the government here, so those who have problems with it will get sympathy.”
Last summer, as Al Qaeda’s Arabian branch began setting off alarms in Washington, Quso became more active, Ahmed told me. “We saw lots of Al Qaeda guys coming and going from his house,” Ahmed said. They tended to keep to themselves, refusing to give rides to others from the village.
But the tribesmen of Rafadh continued to shelter Quso and his men and not just because of their shared hatred of the government. Quso had offered to supply teachers for the village school. Local families knew he was with Al Qaeda but welcomed the news for a simple reason: there were no teachers in the school at all. “The people were saying, ‘We would rather have our kids get an Al Qaeda education than be illiterate,’ ” Jifri told me. After hearing about Quso’s offer, Jifri went to officials in Sana and delivered a blunt message: “Right now you have one Al Qaeda guy in Rafadh, tomorrow you will have 700.”
Initially, Jifri said, the government refused to provide teachers, saying any town that was willing to accept help from Al Qaeda was beneath contempt. Finally, they relented.
“The government agreed to send 6 teachers,” Jifri told me. “Fahd brought 16.”
WHEN PEOPLE TALK about the government in Yemen, they really mean one man: Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite the country’s many political parties – Islamist, Socialist, Arab nationalist – the country is run almost entirely by Saleh, and he runs it exactly like a sheik: using his own tribe as a power base and constantly making deals to head off his rivals. Saleh came to power in 1978; pictures of him at the time show a skinny young man in a military cap that looks too big for him, his eyes covered by aviator sunglasses.
At the time, most of Yemen was still just emerging from isolation. In 1962 a group of military officers, inspired and aided by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, overthrew the xenophobic religious dynasty that, from its northern base, ruled much of Yemen for centuries. Some of the young officers hoped to modernize Yemen and make it more like other Arab countries. In the mid-1970s one Yemeni president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, tried to tame the powerful tribal sheiks, extend the state’s power throughout the country and unify with South Yemen, which emerged from British occupation in 1967. Yemeni intellectuals still talk about Hamdi with nostalgia. But the sheiks and their Saudi backers were not pleased. In October 1977, Hamdi was found riddled with bullets in his Sana home. The killers had thrown the bodies of murdered French prostitutes beside him to blacken his legacy.
Saleh was not a man to make such mistakes. He fought in a tribal army as a teenager and then made his way up through the ranks of the military, impressing superiors with his ruthlessness and charm. He became a tank commander – a crucial skill at a time when tanks were a new and essential weapon. When Hamdi’s successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, was blown up by a bomb hidden in a briefcase, Saleh was a compromise replacement. No one expected him to last long.
Three decades later, Saleh retains a stiff, military bearing, with a strong jaw and glinting eyes. In person he conveys an impression of fierce pride and gruffness and the natural defensiveness of a man from a small tribe who fought his way up with no more than an elementary-school education. When I interviewed him in 2008, he seemed impatient and almost angry. His eyes darted around the room as he fired off commands to his aides in a guttural voice. He bridled at questions about the American role in Yemen. “Arrogant,” he said, staring at me, then adding disdainfully in English, “Cowboys.”
SOME SAY SALEH has lasted so long because, unlike his predecessors, he knew not to take on the tribes directly. “Saleh survived by mastering the tribal game as no one else had,” Khaled Fattah, the tribal expert, said. He did so in two ways. First, he coddled the big tribal sheiks, bringing them into the capital and building them large homes. He created a patronage network that grew substantially after Yemen began pumping oil in the 1980s, paying large sums to sheiks, military leaders, political figures and anyone who might pose a threat to his power. Much of Yemen’s budget now goes into corruption and kickbacks – worth billions of dollars – that fuel this network, according to diplomats, analysts and oil-industry figures in Sana.
Second, Saleh adopted what some Yemenis call “the policy of management through conflicts.” If a tribe was causing trouble, he would begin building up its rivals as a counterweight. If a political party became threatening, he would do the same thing, sometimes even creating a cloned version of the same party with people on the government payroll. “The government plays divide and rule with us,” Arfaj bin Hadban, a tribal sheik from Jawf province, north of Sana, said. “If one tribe will not do what he wants, he gets the neighbors to pressure it. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s weapons, sometimes it’s employment for the tribesmen.”
But in a sense, the key to Saleh’s long rule – and to much of Yemen’s modern history – lies just to the north in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom squats atop Yemen on the map like a domineering older brother with a rebellious sibling. Starting in 1962, the Saudi royal family viewed Yemenis’ democratic aspirations with alarm and began paying hefty stipends to tribal sheiks throughout the country to reinforce its influence. Later, the Saudis began spreading their hard-line strand of Islam throughout the country, with help from some like-minded Yemenis. Hundreds of religious schools sprang up teaching Salafism, the puritanical sect that denounces all other sects as heresy. (The Saudi variant is usually called Wahhabism.) This was bound to be divisive in Yemen, where a third or more of the population were Zaydis, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
As the influence of the Salafists grew, Saleh formed close ties to jihadists and radical clerics like Abdul Majid al-Zindani, who is listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a “specially designated global terrorist.” Saleh had a political motive: Salafists are mostly quiescent and preach obedience to the ruler (even if they call for violent jihad in other lands). That was an appealing trait in Yemen’s complex social mosaic, where rivalries based on class, region, religious sect and lineage are endemic. But Saleh also knew that he needed the Saudis, who are widely believed to have arranged his accession in the first place.
When I met him, Saleh seemed enraged that anyone should dare to criticize his methods. “We have unified the country and brought stability,” he told me. That is true. Saleh orchestrated the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and he has remained in power for 32 years. But even as he spoke, in June 2008, those achievements seemed to be unraveling. Zaydi rebels from the north – angered by Saleh’s support for the Salafists – were gaining ground. In the south, a groundswell of economic discontent was rising and later became an open secessionist movement. The fact that Saleh is now trying to arrange for his son Ahmed Saleh to succeed him as president has alienated many tribal leaders and other allies, narrowing Saleh’s power base. In the past year, as Al Qaeda began to mount more frequent attacks, he turned to some old friends for help, only to see them abandon him.
One night in January 2009, Tareq al-Fadhli, a 42-year-old aristocrat from south Yemen, received a phone call from Saleh. Fadhli wasn’t surprised: the Yemeni president is famously impulsive and has a habit of calling people late at night with urgent ideas or demands that are sometimes forgotten by daylight. But this one was unusual. Saleh wanted to convene all the old jihadis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Fadhli told me.
“He wanted us to make a dialogue with the new generation of Al Qaeda,” Fadhli said. “He said he wanted to arrange to send them abroad to Saudi Arabia and Somalia, and in return he would release the ones who were in prison.” The released prisoners would stay in Yemen.
It was a bold idea, to put it mildly. Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s most important ally and had waged bloody battles to rid itself of homegrown jihadi fighters. But Al Qaeda, once a manageable problem, seemed to be running out of control in Yemen, and America was putting on the pressure. Saleh was desperate to find a way to rid himself of the militants, preferably without calling in American airstrikes or doing anything else that would alienate the radical clerics on whose political support he counted.
Fadhli, who has mournful eyes and a distinguished face, was a natural intermediary and an old ally. As a young man, he fought for three years in Afghanistan, leaving only after he was wounded at Jalalabad. He had formed a close friendship with Osama bin Laden, whom he still remembers fondly. Later, when the socialists of southern Yemen rebelled in 1994, Fadhli formed a brigade of jihadists at the central government’s request and helped put down the rebels. His friend bin Laden helped out, providing millions of dollars’ worth of arms and hundreds of fighters who were hungry for another chance to kill godless socialists.
After that, the former jihadis split. Fadhli, like many others, went back to civilian life, becoming a landowner in the south and an adviser to Saleh. He said goodbye to bin Laden in Sudan in 1994 and has not seen him since. But some veterans continued to preach jihad and to train in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda, which began to call for the overthrow of secular Arab regimes.
The first real sign that the jihadis were a source of trouble at home came in 2000 with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port town of Aden on the southern coast. Seventeen American sailors were killed. A year later, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Saleh recognized that a major shift had taken place. Fearing that the United States might invade Yemen, he flew to Washington and pledged his support. At home, his security forces rounded up hundreds of former jihadists and jailed them en masse without charge. In November 2002, the C.I.A. used a Predator drone to kill Abu Ali al-Harithi, then the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, as he was driving in the desert east of Sana.
Saleh knew his collaboration with the United States could make the jihadis turn on him. He was furious after American officials leaked word of their role in the Harithi assassination. Later, Saleh repeatedly denied the Americans permission to kill Al Qaeda leaders during Yemen’s 2006 presidential election because he feared the strikes might harm his electoral prospects, according to one high-ranking Yemeni official. Saleh had struggled for years to find a compromise between the radicals and the Americans. He created an Islamic “dialogue” program to bring jihadists under the umbrella of the state, then abandoned it after several of its graduates returned to terrorism. Popular sympathy for the jihadist cause was still high, and in February 2006 Saleh suffered a deep embarrassment when 23 prisoners, many of them in Al Qaeda, escaped from a maximum-security prison in Sana. The authorities offered a preposterous explanation: the men tunneled out of their cell with spoons and table legs and emerged in the bathroom of a neighboring mosque. The truth, the high-ranking official told me, was that officers in the Political Security Organization arranged the escape. “You have to remember, these officers used to escort people from Sana to Pakistan during the Afghan jihad,” he said. “People made relationships, and that doesn’t change so easily.”
By 2007, it was clear that a new and more dangerous generation of Al Qaeda militants was emerging. Unlike their predecessors, these men aimed openly to overthrow the Yemeni state and refused all dialogue with it. Many later claimed that they suffered torture in Yemeni prisons during long terms – usually without formal charges. Some of them had gone to Iraq and returned with valuable battlefield skills. The attacks grew bloodier and more frequent: a suicide bombing in July 2007 killed eight Spanish tourists; there were attacks on oil pipelines. In September 2008, suicide bombers in two cars struck the U.S. Embassy in Sana in a meticulously planned operation that left 10 Yemenis and all 6 attackers dead.
Saleh tried to win the militants over through intermediaries. Nasser al-Bahri, a 35-year-old former driver for bin Laden, told me that he tried reaching out to the new militants. They refused, and he soon discovered he was on a “death list” of accused traitors. Several other former jihadists told me the same thing. “I try to talk to these people,” said Ali Muhammad al-Kurdi, another militant Islamist who fought in Afghanistan. “They tell me, ‘You are an agent.’ ” Some of the older jihadists advised Saleh to immunize the state from attacks by Islamizing it. He briefly deployed a morality-police brigade, modeled on the notorious cane-wielding mutawa in Saudi Arabia. The attacks continued.
Finally, in January of last year, Tareq al-Fadhli received his late-night phone call from the president. Saleh said he would release 130 Al Qaeda sympathizers right away as a good-will gesture and asked Fadhli to arrange the rest.
Fadhli told me that he formed a committee of former jihadis and began traveling through the areas where Al Qaeda has found sanctuary – Marib, Shabwa, Jawf and Abyan provinces. “The tribal sheiks cooperated with us everywhere,” Fadhli told me. “Whenever we found Qaeda members, we told them: ‘The government wants you to turn yourself in, but it’s O.K. We will guarantee your safety.’ ”
In the end, 20 people on the government’s 60-most-wanted list agreed to stop fighting, Fadhli said. But the mediators never made any progress with Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, or his top deputies.
A few months after the failed negotiation, in April 2009, Fadhli defected from the government, joining the southern secessionist movement. He told me that he was tired of hearing Saleh offer tempting deals to Al Qaeda while refusing to even talk to the leaders in the south, whose movement – rooted in claims of economic discrimination – is populist, secular and nonviolent.
Meanwhile, the United States grew increasingly concerned about Al Qaeda’s growth in Yemen and about Saleh’s tendency to see it as a family problem, solvable through dialogue. Veteran jihadists were said to be coming to Yemen from Afghanistan and Somalia. Last summer, Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the overall commander of American military forces in the Middle East, visited Sana, and the number of American military trainers working with Yemen’s counterterrorism forces quietly grew. In the fall, a select group of American officials met with Saleh and showed him irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda was aiming at him and his relatives, who dominate Yemen’s military and intelligence services. That seems to have abruptly changed Saleh’s attitude, American diplomats told me. The Yemenis began to mount more aggressive ground raids on Al Qaeda targets, in coordination with the airstrikes that began in December.
But the strikes and raids were a short-term tactic. The real problem was that Yemen, with its mind-boggling corruption, its multiple insurgencies, its disappearing oil and water and its deepening poverty, is sure to descend further into chaos if something does not change. Everyone has acknowledged this, including President Obama and a growing chorus of terrorism analysts. So far, the calls for action have yielded nothing. I spoke to a number of American officials in Washington and to a variety of diplomats at the embassy in Sana. They all told me the same thing: no one has a real strategy for Yemen, in part because there are so few people who have any real expertise about the country. No American diplomats travel to the provinces where Al Qaeda has found sanctuary. Even the Yemeni government has great difficulty reaching these places; often they have no idea whether airstrikes or bombing runs have hit their targets, because they dare not show up to check until days afterward.
Officially, American policy in Yemen is twofold: using airstrikes and raids to help the Yemeni military knock out Al Qaeda cells, while increasing development and humanitarian aid to address the root causes of radicalism. In late June, the White House announced it was more than tripling its humanitarian assistance, to $42.5 million. But the numbers are still small given Yemen’s need. And diplomats concede that they have not figured out how to address the central issues of poor governance, corruption and the economy. “There is a huge amount of diplomacy that needs to be done and is not being done,” Edmund J. Hull, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said when I met him in Washington. “It makes me uneasy to hear that we’re not getting out to those remote areas. One way or another, we have ceded the initiative to Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda is calling the shots.”
AL QAEDA HAS a clear Yemen strategy. On Jan. 23, 2009, the group released a high-quality video clip on the Internet showing four men sitting on a floor, with a clean white curtain and a flag behind them. One of them was Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the group’s leader, wearing a white turban, and one was Qassim al-Raymi, its military commander, clad in fatigues and a red-and-white kaffiyeh. Sitting alongside them were two new Qaeda commanders, both former detainees from the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.
The video was a setback for President Obama, who had been inaugurated days earlier and had made a high-profile pledge to close Guantánamo – where nearly half the remaining inmates were Yemenis – within a year. But the real news was Al Qaeda’s announcement that same month that it was merging its Saudi and Yemeni branches into a single unit: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The new group incorporated a number of fighters from Saudi Arabia, where the government had cracked down fiercely on terrorist networks. It proclaimed a broad ambition: to serve as a base for attacks throughout the region and to replace the infidel governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia with a single theocratic state.
At the heart of this new effort was an unlikely leader. Wuhayshi is a tiny man, less than five feet tall. In videotapes he sits motionless, his pinched face blank, his small eyes expressionless. Raymi, the group’s burly military commander, speaks passionately, his hands knifing through the air, his eyes full of righteous anger. By contrast, Wuhayshi seems almost catatonic.
Yet Al Qaeda men treat him with deep veneration. “When they see him, they kiss him on the forehead, like a great sheik,” said Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist who interviewed Wuhayshi and other Al Qaeda leaders before the video’s release. “They all love and respect him.” Shaea, who was blindfolded and driven out to a remote area for his interview, said Wuhayshi was laconic but quick-witted, with flashes of sarcastic humor and a remarkable ability to adduce Koranic verses to back up anything he said. Wuhayshi’s authority seems to derive mostly from his long proximity to bin Laden, whom he served for six years as a private secretary in Afghanistan. “During bombing raids, everyone else would scatter, but he would stay by bin Laden’s side,” Shaea said, echoing a story other Al Qaeda members told him about their leader. The founders seem to have been impressed: bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a statement in November 2008 formally recognizing Wuhayshi as the emir, or prince, of Al Qaeda in the region.
Shaea and others who have studied him say Wuhayshi appears to be modeling himself on bin Laden, who has always been more cerebral guide than day-to-day commander. Wuhayshi left Afghanistan in late 2001 and was arrested by Iranian authorities; they handed him over two years later to Yemen, which jailed him without charge. Little is known about his early life in Abyan province in southern Yemen. Personality aside, he seems to have much in common with Raymi, his fiery military commander. Both men come from ordinary families, studied at religious schools and fought in Afghanistan, according to Shaea and other Yemeni journalists. Both served time afterward in Yemeni prisons. And both were among the 23 militants who escaped from the central Sana prison in February 2006.
The two men have also followed bin Laden’s example in building an ever-more-sophisticated propaganda arm for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including frequent video and audio tapes and an Internet magazine, Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles), that appears every two months or so. The magazine makes for bizarre reading, by turns chilling and poignant. The first page of one recent issue showed a colorful 1950s-style stock image of a hand that was mixing fluid in a chemical beaker, alongside a hand grenade and the headline “Year of the Assassination.” The authors are clearly familiar with the style of Western magazine journalism, and many articles are framed as regular features like View From the Inside and The Leader’s Editorial. There are didactic items, with headlines like “Shariah Is the Solution” and “Practical Steps Toward the Liberation of Palestine.” But some of the articles are almost whimsical (“A Mujahid’s Thoughts”), and there are sharp satires (“The Saudi Media on Mars”). Much of the content has an earnest, proselytizing tone, a bit like the ads that Western corporations publish to trumpet their civic responsibility. One recent article, for example, was titled “Inside View: Why We’re Fighting in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Since it first appeared in early 2008, the magazine has grown steadily more polished, and the quality of its Koranic scholarship has improved, said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University who has spent years tracking Al Qaeda in the region. Its content has mirrored the influx of Saudi militants into the group, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a former Guantánamo detainee who is now the deputy emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps the magazine’s most frequent target for abuse is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who directs Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts and has become heavily involved with Yemen’s struggle with Al Qaeda. In August, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula came close to assassinating bin Nayef when a Saudi suicide bomber posing as a repentant member of the group was allowed into the prince’s Jedda home and detonated a bomb. Bin Nayef was only lightly injured. Afterward, Sada al-Malahim published a lengthy defense of the tactic under the headline “War Is Deception,” citing Koranic verses that approve of deceit as a tool in times of war.
The target audience for all this rhetoric is a bit of a mystery: Internet access is rare in Yemen, especially in the areas where Al Qaeda operates. There is evidence that the group may be aiming to win over members of the military or even the political elite (not an implausible goal, given the depth of sympathy for jihadism in Yemen). As for the broader public, one hint came in a video the group released last summer. The 18-minute video, “The Battle of Marib,” about a successful battle with the Yemeni military, pointedly emphasized the accuracy of Al Qaeda’s casualty count. The narrator, Qassim al-Raymi, mocks the government for failing to acknowledge that seven soldiers were captured. The video then cuts to a government press conference, in which a spokesman stumbles badly in response to questions from journalists and refuses – just as Raymi said- to acknowledge the soldiers’ capture. The video then returns to Raymi, who, facing the camera almost gloatingly, delivers his message: “I call upon all Muslims to take their information from clear and correct sources, like the jihadi Web sites on the Internet.”
It is far from clear how Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in remote and desperately under developed areas, turns out such a slick product. Shaea, the Yemeni journalist who interviewed Al Qaeda’s top leaders, told me he also met four members of the group’s media arm in a room that was set up like a studio, with computers and other equipment. “You could tell they were rich and well educated,” he said. “Some did not look like Arabs. They did not speak, so I wondered if they even spoke Arabic.”
If Wuhayshi and Raymi want to recreate the original Al Qaeda in Yemen, they also seem to have learned from its mistakes. Starting in 2009, the group used its Internet magazine and intermittent videos to make increasingly passionate appeals to the people of Yemen – and especially to its tribes. The magazine echoed populist discontent about government corruption, unemployment and unfair distribution of revenue from Yemen’s oil, much of which comes from the very areas where Al Qaeda is active. The articles often show a deep understanding of local concerns; one issue in 2008 included an anguished complaint about the government’s mishandled response to a flood in the eastern province of Hadramawt.
Al Qaeda’s Afghanistan-based leadership reinforced the tribal message in early 2009, when Zawahiri issued an audiotape addressed to “the noble and defiant tribes of Yemen,” urging them to rise up against Saleh’s government. “Don’t be less than your brothers in the defiant Pashtun and Baluch tribes,” he said. “Don’t be helpers of Ali Abdullah Saleh. . . . Support your brothers the mujahedeen.” At the same time, the group strove to marry members to tribal women and mediate tribal disputes.
The reason for all this was simple: a global reaction was developing against militants acting in the name of Al Qaeda, largely because of their extreme and often indiscriminate violence. In Iraq, the local Al Qaeda branch alienated tribes that provided crucial support for them in Anbar province, paving the way for the American-backed “awakening movement” that threw them out. Wuhayshi and his men clearly wanted to prevent that from happening in Yemen.
So far the most masterful piece of propaganda by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still the “Battle of Marib” video. In it, Raymi tells the story of the Yemeni military’s effort to destroy an Al Qaeda cell and capture Aidh al-Shabwani, a young militant with a lame leg whom one government official described to me as “a sort of local Robin Hood figure.” The raid was a humiliating failure. The army lost several tanks and armored vehicles to the guerrillas, who knew the local orange groves and deserts well. The Al Qaeda men took possession of a weapons convoy and captured seven soldiers, who were later released.
The video’s most striking feature is its anxious plea to tribesmen to resist payments and pressure from the Yemeni government and its Saudi and American backers. It starts off with an acknowledgment that the raid took place because of a “betrayal” by local tribal leaders. Then Raymi intones: “How shameful it is that some sheiks allow themselves to become soldiers and slaves of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is himself but a slave to Saudi riyals and American dollars. I say to these sheiks: be careful that you don’t become a piece of chewing gum that a person enjoys for a short time and then throws away.” After Raymi and another narrator describe the Al Qaeda victory, the second narrator offers a more refined formulation, noting that the seven soldiers’ lives were spared: “If you don’t support the mujahedeen, then at least don’t stand against them.” Since then, the group has released a stream of statements and videos outlining its basic objectives: to recruit more followers, overthrow Saleh and use Yemen as a base to attack the Saudi monarchy and build an Islamic caliphate.
AFTER THE DAWN cruise-missile strike on Rafadh, the open-air tribal meeting reached a conclusion. The elders decided that Quso and his Al Qaeda gang had become a threat to the tribes. Two deadly missiles had struck in less than a week; more might be coming. Tribal hospitality was one thing, and it was a shame that the five young men were killed. But the presence of Quso and his recruits was endangering everyone. They had to go. The elders deputized Ahmed and a fellow tribesman to evict them.
Ahmed told me he sat in his pickup truck with Quso and spoke to him firmly: “Are you satisfied? All of the people here have been living in the mountains, in the trees, for a week. Now we want you out, and don’t come back unless you’re alone.” The Al Qaeda man said nothing. He seemed subdued and appeared to understand that he could not challenge the tribe’s decision.
Ahmed drove Quso out of the valley on a bumpy dirt track. As they drove, Quso contacted other Al Qaeda members in the area, and they picked them up one by one. Before long there were 11 men piled into the truck. Ahmed said he left them on the nearest main road and returned to his valley. A few days later, Quso came back. This time he was alone. As of mid-February, he still was living alone in his grandfather’s house, according to Jifri, who visited him there.
Not everyone has reacted to the airstrikes this way. In the neighboring province of Abyan, an airstrike killed dozens of people, most of them women and children, according to local witnesses. The civilian death toll created a groundswell of anger at the Yemeni government and the United States that was a boon to Al Qaeda recruiters, several local people told me. Ali al-Shal, an opposition member of the Yemeni Parliament who is from a village close to where the Abyan airstrikes took place, told me it was too dangerous for him to visit afterward. Ultimately he was able to visit, but only once and only by drawing on his family connections with local tribal figures. “There was not much sympathy for Al Qaeda before, but the strike has created a lot of sympathy,” he said.
IN RECENT WEEKS, Al Qaeda has sounded more confident than ever, issuing threats and calls to arms, along with publishing its Internet magazine and introducing an English-language online magazine called Inspire. In May, a botched air raid led to the death of a tribal leader in Marib who was negotiating on the government’s behalf with a local Al Qaeda leader, infuriating the local tribes and further eroding President Saleh’s credibility. On June 19, four heavily armed men stormed the fortified headquarters of the Political Security Organization in the southern port city of Aden, freeing prisoners suspected of being Al Qaeda members and escaping unharmed.
Before leaving Yemen, I traveled to Aden. Near the dilapidated oil refinery built by the British, I found the Quso family home, in a row of simple stone and concrete bungalows. Fahd’s father, Muhammad al-Quso, was just walking up to the door as I arrived. He was an old man with a deeply lined face, dressed in a red-and-white futa and headdress. He walked with a cane. Inside the house he sat down heavily in an armchair and told the story of his son’s life. It was a biography that matched many others in Yemen.
Fahd was born in 1975, his father said, and grew up alongside four brothers and six sisters. He was a happy child and a good student at the local elementary school, called al-Saafir. But his parents wanted him to have some religion, so when he was 14 they sent him – along with some of his friends from the neighborhood – to a school up north called Dar al-Hadith. The school is famous as one of the first Wahhabi institutions in Yemen; John Walker Lindh was reportedly among the future jihadists who studied there. After he came home, he studied welding at the local technical school. But he decided not to work at the refinery, as his father had. When I asked about the accusations that his son took part in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, he winced and said he didn’t believe it. He complained that the authorities had jailed him, and then later, after freeing him, jailed his brother-in-law for no reason. Finally, I asked Muhammad whether his son was a member of Al Qaeda, as the authorities claimed.
“No,” he said, “I don’t believe this.” He was silent for a long time, staring at the closed door of the house, which was illuminated at its edges by a bright rectangle of afternoon sunlight. Then he spoke again.
“He is a mujahid,” he said, or holy warrior. “He is fighting those who occupy Arab lands. He is fighting unbelievers.”