Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – Yemen continues to present itself as a major ally of the United States in its war against terrorism and Al Qaeda, with the government stating it intends to face extremism through security measures and dialogue with militants.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was cemented after two major operations in the country’s waters. In October 2000, militants attacked the USS Cole destroyer, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39. Two years later, in October 2002, the French oil tanker, the Limburg, was targeted, off the Yemeni coast. The authorities have also foiled a number of planned attacks by Al Qaeda supporters and other militant Islamist groups loyal to Al Qaeda’s ideology.
Many religious leaders across Yemen support Osama Bin Laden’s ideas and rejoice every time his organization strikes. Dozens of Islamist militants are currently being tried for belonging to Al Qaeda. The authorities have recently announced that 170 members of Osama Bin Laden’s group are being investigated by the state prosecutor for terrorism, including the second in command in Al Qaeda (according to the Yemeni government) and the group’s financier, the Yemeni Hamdi Al Ahdal. The authorities remain on the look out for the 23 Islamist militants who escaped from a high-security Yemeni prison in Sanaa in February by digging a 44m tunnel from their cell to a nearby mosque. They include militants wanted for their role in the maritime attacks.
Asharq Al Awsat examines Al Qaeda’s presence and activities in Yemen and speaks to a recently-released member, Rashad Mohammed Said, also known as Abu Al Fida’, about the organization’s structure in Yemen and the reasons for its success in mobilizing thousands of young men. Asharq Al Awsat also spoke to a number of experts and lawyers and discussed the future of Islamic militancy in Yemen and its current activities. When the authorities freed a number of militants earlier this year, it was expected that this would mark the beginning of a “re-integration” stage whereby the former prisoners would be assisted to assimilate in society. Yet, reality points otherwise.
Abu Al Fida revealed that he, along with others who were released from the jails of the Yemeni intelligence services are suffering under the weight of security measurements that restrict their movements and it is as if they are living under “house arrest.” They were released as part of the “intellectual dialogue” established between the government and militants who had returned from Afghanistan and who has “publicly renounced extremist ideology and violence,” according to the government, especially against foreigners and foreign interests in Yemen. These dialogues were organized by a committee of Ulema from the Zaydi and Al Shafey sects, under the presidency of Judge Mahmoud Al Hitar, member of the supreme Yemeni court.
He indicated, for the first time, that the movement of the “youths,” as he called it, between Yemeni governorates is severely restricted and can only occur after permission is granted by the intelligence services. Their passports and identity cards have also been confiscated and many of them are obliged to make themselves known to the authorities once every month. In certain governorates, they have to fill in a form detailing their whereabouts for the last month.
Addressing the Yemeni police, Abu Al Fida’ said, “If the United States has requested that you carry out these measurements, it is pushing matters toward crisis point. If it hasn’t, then I advise that they are stopped and you stop frightening people.”
He believed that these security measurements transformed former militants into “heroes and lions”. He criticized former detainees for not knowing the Quran and for their basic military skills. “They’ve never met Osama Bin Laden but they leave prison as heroes because of the actions of the security and intelligence services.” But, he admitted that Al Qaeda inmates enjoyed better treatment at the hands of the security services compared to other Arab countries because the group has not targeted members of the government “since we are all Muslims and it is not acceptable to target Muslims.”
A former member of Al Qaeda who underwent military training in Afghanistan, Abu Al Fida’ indicated, “all the young men do not see or think about carrying out an attack in Yemen.” Therefore, he believed that the security services should have the ability to deal with former Al Qaeda members without needing to imprison them and nurture their feelings of hatred and anger, to the extent that some might begin to wish they had indeed carried out an attack to justify their situation. He blamed the policies adopted by the Yemeni security services for the growth of Al Qaeda inside the country’s jails and for indirectly promoting its message.
No members of the Yemeni police or intelligence services were available to comment on these statements but a senior source told Asharq Al Awsat, on condition of anonymity, that Abu Al Fida’s account was exaggerated.
Another issue currently preoccupying Yemeni society is the departure of militants to join the insurgency in Iraq. But Abu Al Fida’ denied the presence of “an organized” movement to send young men to Iraq. Instead, Al Qaeda members and sympathizers who chose to travel did so based on “an individual choice,” adding that some of the men who had joined the insurgency did not even know “how to pray.” No official request from Abu Musab Al Zarqawi or other insurgents in Iraq to encourage fighters to join them has been issued but “they ask for help through funds or dawaa (preaching)”.
According to Abu Al Fida’, Al Qaeda in Yemen lacks an organized and hierarchical structure and does not maintain a clear chain of command with an Amir (leader), a deputy and autonomous cells around the country. Instead, Osama Bin Laden’s supporters consist of “individuals who traveled to Afghanistan and were linked to Bin Laden through a common destiny, as comrades during jihad.” The thousands of young Mujahideen in Yemen, “lack organization and are linked by ideology,” he added.
Abu Ali Al Haritthy, the famous Al Qaeda member who was killed in a US drone attack in November 2002, was the group’s most senior leader in Yemen, because of the protection he received from his tribe in Maarib, eastern Yemen and his jihad credentials, as he had participated in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
As for Mohammed Al Ahdal, nicknamed Abu Assem Al Makki, believed to be Al Qaeda’s number two in Yemen, he was sentenced to 37 months behind bars earlier this month for his role in gathering funds for the organization and bankrolling terrorist attacks. Abu Al Fida’ admitted that Al Ahdal was a fundraiser for the Mujahideen in Chechnya and Bosnia but “it has yet to be proven that he collected money to fund attacks inside Yemen.”
For his part, Mohammed Naji Alou, a prominent Islamist lawyer in Yemen and official in the human rights organization HOOD, said it was “obvious” that Al Qaeda would have a presence in Yemen, since most of the young men who traveled to join the Mujahideen in Afghanistan came from Yemen, Egypt and Persian Gulf countries.
Asked about the groups’ current active members and activities inside Yemen, the former Member of Parliament said, “It is impossible for any political analyst to give exact and detailed figures on Al Qaeda’s presence and the support it enjoys. I believe that the security services, which should have such information, are unable to do so.”
The continuing detention and trial of dozens of Yemenis suspected of belonging to Al Qaeda is “one of the reasons for the ongoing violence,” the lawyer said. He also criticized the stringent measures on newly released militants, echoing Abu Al Fida’s earlier statements.
“A dialogue was established with many of these young men. They swore to remain on the side of the law after their release. But not many were released. Those who were freed were harassed and remain unable to move from one city to another without prior permission from the security services. They cannot attend a funeral or visit a doctor unless their request is accepted. They also have problems finding jobs and no one wants to employ them. Many prefer to stay in jail than to be freed under these conditions.”
Suspected members of Al Qaeda in Yemen, according to the former MP, are sentenced in “sham trials that are contrary to the constitution and are not allowed a defense team. I believe all this represses people and encourages them to develop alternative means to attack us.”
While not denying the presence of Al Qaeda on Yemeni territories, Dr. Ahmad Al Daghsi, a professor at Sanaa University, questioned its actual size. He said Al Qaeda was in fact divided into two organizations: the first is based on an idea that many believe in, without any knowledge of Al Qaeda, or its structure or leaders. They believe in its principles and justify its actions because of the oppression seen across” the Arab and Muslim worlds.
“Al Qaeda, as an idea, is present in the hearts of many. But as an organization on the ground that follows pre-set plans and answers to its leaders, it is very limited. The members of such a group are a lot less than what is portrayed in the media, whether in Yemen our elsewhere.”
Asked about the future of Al Qaeda in Yemen, Al Dagshi said, “In my opinion, the war against terrorism has foiled Al Qaeda as a base to a large degree. But, in the meantime, it has created many new bases that do not belong to this organization but follow the same ideas. Al Qaeda in Yemen is finished. The only way it can carry on is if it is [nurtured] by the actions of the United States here and there.”
Abdul Aziz Al Samawi, who has represented Al Qaeda suspects in Yemeni courts, said it was impossible to judge how many belong to the organization. “I am concerned with finding out if those [accused] have committed a crime or not… are they being tried solely because they belong to Al Qaeda?” He revealed that many of the defendants are tried for planning to go to Iraq to join the insurgency. “I can’t understand how someone is jailed because he wanted to travel to Iraq.”