The answer is yes, they could have been captured easily. Almost all the Al-Qaeda suspects killed in Yemen (more than a hundred since 2009) could have been captured, including Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was the most wanted Yemeni-American terrorist before being killed on September 30, 2011, by American drones in Al-Jawf, in the east of the country.
The Yemeni government did not arrest these people—not only because it was afraid of retaliation from their relatives, but also in fear of retaliation from other tribesmen. Tribesmen tend to like and respect extremely religious men like Al-Qaeda members, even though they do not understand their thoughts and ideologies.
Adnan Al-Qadi, a dangerous Al-Qaeda operative and local leader who was killed by US drones late last year, lived openly in his house in Bait Al-Ahmar, Sanhan, the village of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh and many other senior officials. That village is less than twenty miles east of the capital, Sana’a, and Qadi was not hiding. Instead, he painted his house with the black flag of Al-Qaeda. Shortly before he was killed, the government asked him to go as a mediator to local Al-Qaeda leaders in Rada’a to negotiate a truce that never happened. Qadi could have been captured easily. Hailing from the Sanhan tribe of former president Saleh, he was a senior military officer, and was receiving his salary from the 1st Armored Division until he died. Now his family receives the salary.
Another example is Hamid Radman, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the mountainous areas of Wesab, who was killed with three other operatives last week. His village, Mathlab, is very close to the headquarters of the local government, and he routinely conferred with local security and police officers. This indicates there was some kind of cooperation between Radman and the local authorities of Wesab, because each side was afraid of the other.
One day in the middle of 2012, about sixteen security troops in two vehicles were detained for hours close to Radman’s village by armed men loyal to him, because Hamid’s men did not know where they were going and why. “Hamid and his men told us—and they are the authority there—that they should know where we are going,” said Mohammed Al-Yafee, who was with the soldiers at the time. The sixteen security men and their vehicles were only released after the most senior security official in Wesab negotiated with Radman, said Yafee.
In July 2012, Hamid Radman, along with more than fifty gunmen, surrounded Al-Dan, the place where the local government officers for Wesab are located. While his men besieged Al-Dan, Radman stormed into a meeting of local government officials with a Kalashnikov, and declared, “We must uproot corruption and establish an Islamic State.”
“We could have easily arrested him without single shot, but no one told us to do so,” said a local security official who knows Radman very well. The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the senior security officials in the provincial capital of Dhamar and in the national capital, Sana’a, were afraid of supporters of Radman.
“Radman would always tell me, in a friendly way, that killing a [Yemeni] soldier or soldiers is permissible for the time being, because right now, the soldier is the barrier between us and the big enemy, America,” said the official. “But if the strike comes from the sky, his followers will be confused and not know who to take revenge on—maybe this is what our superiors think.”
Radman, along with three of his fighters, were buried as “martyrs” in their home village on April 18, 2013, after being blasted to pieces in their car, which was completely destroyed by US drones one day before, near Radman’s house. Radman was virtually the absolute ruler of Wesab and neighboring areas, about 125 miles southwest of Sana’a, for more than three years. He was not ruling by force but by the consent of local people, who were looking for a ruler able to solve their daily problems in a place where government services are almost completely non-existent.
In the 1980s, Radman was a communist and was sent to Cuba, where he studied economics for 4 years. He returned to Yemen in 1991. Then he was arrested and sentenced to death for killing one of his cousins, but was released in 1999 because his remaining cousins pardoned him shortly before he was due to be executed. In 2004, he tried to travel to Iraq to fight the Americans, but was seized at the airport and jailed by Yemen’s intelligence service. He was released from prison in 2009, after getting to know many of the Al-Qaeda veterans detained there. Radman returned to his village eager for revenge and full of zeal to establish an “Islamic State.”
“Everybody is sad, everybody is asking, ‘Who will solve our problems now?’” said Ali Abdullah, a laboratory technician in Mathlab’s local hospital. “Hamid was very popular; everyone liked him and respected him as soon as they saw him, let alone if he solved their problems … If he was from Al-Qaeda, then he made the people like Al-Qaeda. He did very well to improve the image of Al-Qaeda for some people here who hate them,” said Ali.
The Yemeni government ignored Hamid and let him do whatever he wanted for years, not only because Wesab is considered remote, mountainous and unimportant, but also because it knew that Wesab became a refuge for Al-Qaeda fighters from volatile areas like Abyan and Shabwah. Al-Qaeda sent tens—if not hundreds—of those injured in battles in Abyan last year to the remote and mountainous area for treatment under the supervision of Radman.
He was not only a local commander of Al-Qaeda; he was the police chief, the judge, the minister of water, education, health and everything else, for the people of Wesab. In contrast, government officials, including the administrative and security chiefs of the region, stay in their home districts and do not show up to work except to collect their salaries before quickly leaving again, according to many residents who were asked why people liked Radman.
Even worse, the low level officials who showed up to work and did their jobs were threatened with being left alone with Radman and his militants.
“One day I argued with the intelligence officer assigned to monitor Radman’s activities, and he was a little bit angry with me, so he said: we will leave you for Radman if you do not listen to me,” said the low-level security official who identified himself only as Yahya. “Everything about Radman was reported to the senior intelligence officials, but they did nothing more than threatening us with this guy.”
Radman’s village of Mathlab is located in the district of Wesab, a series of mountains overlooking the Red Sea. Poverty, ignorance and illiteracy are widespread. Although US drones have been sporadically flying over Wesab for about six months, the local people were surprised by the drone strikes.
“We thought we are not important enough for American drones,” said Abdu Morshid. “To mention our name [Wesab] with drones is better than no mention at all … Killing this man will not solve the problem without solving the development problems of the people, who do not care about Al-Qaeda and care only for having enough to eat.”