Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- Abdul-Ilah Haydar, a Yemen-based terrorism expert, talks to Asharq al Awsat about his visits to territories where Al-Qaeda elements and its sympathizers are present. Haydar also revealed details about his meetings with a number of the terrorist organization’s leaders, including Abu-Basir, who is the Emir of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), his deputy Al-Shihri, and the commander of the military wing Abu-Hurayrah, in addition to meeting with the other man wanted by the United States of America, Anwar al-Awlaki.
The Fallowing is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You’ve met with Al-Qaeda sympathizers, but what about members or leaders?
[Haydar] You can meet Al-Qaeda elements on the strip of area that extends between Marib to the center of Aden…yes, I met with [Al-Qaeda] elements and leaders. Some were Saudi youths. If you now go to Abyan for example you can meet Al-Qaeda elements because they are present in that area, especially Marib, Shabwah, and Al-Jawf. They are obvious to the people and the people know they are Al-Qaeda Organization elements.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have the names of the leaders you met?
[Haydar] Some of the leaders I met were the Emir of the organization Abu-Basir, Deputy (of the organization’s emir) Saeed al-Shihri, and Abu-Hurayrah who is in charge of the military. The latter I met twice, first in Sanaa when he was coordinating the meeting (with the press) and the second time when I met with the “emir” and he was present.
There are some titles and people without names, some were Saudi and some probably not Arab [judging] by their features, and with whom we did not have any conversation, and (Emir) Abu-Basir did not mention their names, nicknames, or titles.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When was the last time you met these leaders?
[Haydar] It was only one meeting in January 2009.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where was this meeting exactly?
[Haydar] I do not know where it was because they arranged it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What does the Emir of the Organization Al-Wuhayshi want?
[Haydar] They (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) have three parallel aims: a local aim; a regional aim; and a global aim. The local aim is to establish an Islamic emirate in any location that they can control and rule the people using the Islamic Shariaa according to what Abu-Basir said. The second aim – after establishing an Islamic emirate – is to prepare an army of 12,000 fighters in order to bring victory to those who are weak on earth, as they said, including liberating Palestine. In order to pass through these areas, they will destroy and disband the regimes that are already present in the region and they are depending on the many disturbances in the region.
As for the regional aim (as they say) it is to chase the polytheists out of the Arabia Peninsula. They are carrying the banner (remove the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula) which means that this is a regional strategic aim first to remove the western forces and the US and western intelligence and military presence.
As for the global aim, after forming an emirate in Yemen, and an emirate in Iraq, an emirate in Somalia, an emirate in Afghanistan, an emirate in Pakistan, and many other regions then what they call the comprehensive Islamic system will be established, the system of Islamic caliphate based on the prophet’s methodology.
These are the three goals they are working toward and this is why you find them repeated constantly in their rhetoric published in the periodic Sada al-Malahim magazine and in the speeches of their emir. This even came during the last speech of the second-in-command Saeed al-Shihri, who was speaking very carefully and focusing on these three directions, and therefore he spoke about the Jihadist Youth Movement in Somalia and that they will be united to accomplish this project.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] These three leaders in the Al-Qaeda Organization (Al-Wuhayshi, Al-Shihri, and Abu-Hurayrah) surely have a way of moving around. Did you notice some form of mobility such as a house or a car…or do they simply live in caves as some of us imagine?
[Haydar] No it was a normal house, as though it was in a city, and they moved in a number of cars.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And as for the supporters… were they there?
[Huydar] There were a number of masked youths and men. I was not taken to see the emir in one go, I moved from one group to another and then another until I finally met Abu-Basir.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were these groups armed?
[Haydar] They were all armed and masked.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of weapons?
[Haydar] I did not notice the kind of weapon because I was covered (the face was covered). However, when we stopped only on the way, I saw there was a number of youths and a number of cars, I think about four of five cars along with a group of masked youths carrying weapons. Then they transferred me to another location and so on.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said that the number of Al-Qaeda elements is in the thousands. However, in your estimation and through dealing with this issue could the current number have reached 3,000 or 4,000?
[Haydar] Maybe…could be more or less. We cannot determine the exact number because those who are pledging allegiance to the organization now cannot be separated from those who support them, and their partners now have the same goal, which is to fight the state either in order to secede or for the purpose of taking revenge from the state or America because they feel they killed their sons on 17 and 24 December 2009 in the shelling that took place in those areas.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where, in your opinion, does the Al-Qaeda Organization in Yemen obtain money, weapons, food, cars, and shelter?
[Haydar] There are three sources of financing; the first source: people joining Al-Qaeda. He who joins Al-Qaeda in term of ideology is the person who gives for the sake of God, he gives his money and himself. The second source: the tribes that the organization lives among, and they are generous tribes that shelter strangers, and give whoever comes to them asking for shelter or support. The third source of financing is from businessmen and traders and those supporters of Jihad around the world by various methods whether inside Yemen or abroad. This financing reaches Al-Qaeda in Yemen and used to reach Al-Zarqawi in Iraq. I believe this financing passes through banks because the Al-Qaeda Organization in Yemen is not far from civilized life. It is known that the organization is not a tribal organization or a completely Bedouin organization, it combines Bedouin life with modern life.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the finance the Al-Qaeda Organization in Yemen receives allows it to move about much?
[Haydar] What I can confirm is that the financing allows it to continue and move in a way that enables it to achieve its goals.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you sense anxiety by the organization’s leaders about the future in terms of financing or in terms of security attacks by the Yemeni forces, or are they afraid of an American invasion against them, for example?
[Haydar] I did not sense that from the Al-Qaeda leaders. However from the debates by those ideologues and supporters on the [Internet] forums and from official previous articles, they used to say (for example) in the statement in which they claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings in March 2004: We have opened a quagmire for America and the West in Afghanistan, the second quagmire in Iraq, and the third quagmire will be in Yemen. They were preparing for Yemen to be their third front.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do Al-Qaeda elements and leaders live in the mountains as some say, or do they live with their families in some cities?
[Haydar] For example, Saeed al-Shihri’s family followed him from Saudi Arabia. She probably felt that her husband could provide her (here in Yemen) with a good life. There are also some other leaders in the Al-Qaeda Organization living with their families…with their wives and children.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean they do not live in mountains and remote areas?
[Haydar] During my meetings with a number of them I did not see them living in caves or mountains. I found them in homes and surrounded by many people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think this continues until now?
[Haydar] I expect so, yes. They live among people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this indicate a weak presence of the Yemeni state in the southern governorates or a weakness in the counter-terrorism agencies that are trying to uproot the Al-Qaeda Organization from the country?
[Haydar] We cannot say it is weakness or strength…it is the pattern of the relationship that was established between the tribe and state a long time ago that allowed the Al-Qaeda Organization and other jihadist groups to come to Yemen and take shelter with the tribes…whether Egyptian jihadist groups or those that came from the Arab Maghreb or Syria. This is the outcome of the tribe and state having a relationship of equals and not a relationship of domination and control by the state in terms of development, law, and Constitution. There has been no control by the state in that area for a while and not because of the Al-Qaeda Organization now.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that the counter-terrorism agencies are finding it difficult to target Al-Qaeda there?
[Haydar] Regarding the operations carried out by the state against Al-Qaeda recently in Abyan, Shabwah, Marib, Al-Ajashir, Arhab, and other locations, why did the state not know who was killed or wounded from Al-Qaeda? After that, statements made by the state said that Al-Qaeda in Abyan went to the hospitals and discharged its wounded elements, and that it (Al-Qaeda) had managed to bury the dead. Where is the state? The state was not present on the ground…could it not have gone into the field to ascertain [who was killed]? Why? Because the people will confront the state. The people in that area reject any military presence of the state. They have not known it before…they did not know the state through development. The areas that were shelled had no services of any kind…no water, electricity, roads, schools or hospitals. The state cannot enter these areas by land. The state could have sent special counter-terrorism forces in order to arrest Al-Qaeda elements…to kill them, but it cannot because the local people will confront them.
When the helicopters came to shell (Al-Qaeda elements) in Marib, the people responded with anti-aircraft [weapons] because they regard this as aggression against the tribe. The same happened in Al-Jawf, Sa’dah, and the Al-Ajashir area.
Why could the state not collect the bodies of those Al-Qaeda Organization elements it claimed it had killed or wounded? It is because the local people will confront them. The state shells from the air and does not know the outcome. This shows how the state is unable to confront the Al-Qaeda Organization in the field or on the ground
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is despite the presence of local councils and governors that support the state in those locations?
[Haydar] These civil institutions are different from the military presence…even this civil presence is often attacked or targeted by the tribes. However, the situation here is different in the local councils because some of them are members of the same tribe but they are not convinced with these councils because they have not been provided with any services.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that we can say that even local councils are covering up in one way or another for people wanted by the state?
[Haydar] Even if they [the local councils] knew who are wanted they cannot pursue them because the Al-Qaeda Organization over the years has managed to infiltrate into the tribe. The Al-Qaeda Organization is no longer a guest of a tribe; it has became part of it because it recruited its sons and [tribal] leaders. What can the tribal leaders or the tribe itself do? Does it give up on its sons and inform [the authorities] about those who are wanted? Does it call on the state to kill its sons? This is impossible in tribal norms.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you meet the “Yemeni American” Anwar al-Awlaki?
[Haydar] Toward the end of last year…I did not meet him in an Al-Qaeda capacity, but as an old friend after he returned from America following the 11 September 2001 events, and I met him at his home in Shabwah.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who is Anwar al-Awlaki?
[Haydar] He is the son of a rich family from Awlak in Shabwah. It is a family that is very resilient and had a great role in chasing the British occupation out of southern Yemen. Al-Awlaki was born and studied in America because his father was studying for a doctorate degree there. Al-Awlaki’s father is a former minister in the Yemeni Government (he was the minister of agriculture) and a major leader in the ruling party. He was the former head of the Sanaa University. As for Anwar al-Awlaki himself, he was also an important person among the Muslims in America and Britain and he enjoyed their respect. He held seminars and classes, and when he returned to Yemen he continued practicing his activities and maintained his links to his friends in the West, including Nidal Hasan, who carried out the Fort Hood operation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did he choose Shabwah to live after returning to Yemen?
[haydar] Al-Awlaki lived in Sanaa first after returning from abroad and he used to go to Shabwah. However, he decided to permanently reside in Shabwah after the Yemeni authorities detained him for one and a half years without any charges and without him standing trial. The Americans suspected that he had links to the 11 September events because two of those who carried out the 11 September operations used to pray at his mosque (in America) and the American investigators could not during his time in America find anything against him. The Americans though wanted him to stay in the US so they can arrest him one way or another. Al-Awlaki felt that the American authorities after 11 September created a tense atmosphere for the Muslims there and therefore he moved to Britain where he settled for a number of years, and then returned to Yemen. Once the Yemeni authorities released him, he left Sanaa and moved to his tribe (in Shabwah) which protects him and among whom he now lives.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a belief that Al-Awlaki joined Al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula after the attacks that targeted the organization in southern Yemen last December…is this true?
[Haydar] Within the Al-Qaeda Organization, it is not known who Anwar al-Awlaki is, which means that the situation continues to be what it is…ie he continues to be the pious sheikh who pumps Islamic ideas about glory, honor, jihad, and many issues which he talks about in his speeches and seminars. There has not been much change in his rhetoric when compared to five years ago. He wrote a letter (44 ways to serve Jihad one and a half years ago) and he was not a member of the organization. I believe he is still the same as he was but he has become more careful after the latest attacks.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A number of publications carried an interview with you conducted by an American newspaper around a month ago about a relationship between Al-Awlaki and the Nigerian [national] Abdulmutallab. Was there such a direct link between them?
[Haydar] The interview was by The New York Times and was carried by a number of newspapers. There were some things attributed to me that I did not say quoting Anwar al-Awlaki. They said that I had said that Al-Awlaki had met with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. I did not say he had met [him]. Sheikh (Al-Awlaki) did not say he had met Abdulmutallab. The newspaper quoted me as saying that he had met [him], and this is not accurate information, it is not true. I did not say it and neither did I quote the Sheikh [Al-Awlaki] as saying it. There were no new recordings for Anwar al-Awlaki in which he said that he had met Umar Farouk, or that he was one of his students as it was alleged. Unfortunately, this was widely published and there were many mistakes and things that were not true. I asked the newspaper to correct the mistake for the public and I told the reporter who had interviewed me that he said that Al-Awlaki had met Abdulmutallab, and this was not true, so the reporter apologized and told me that he had misunderstood the translator. I told him that (he had said) he had heard recordings and he had not heard any recording. He said it was true that he had not heard any recording and did not hear Anwar al-Awlaki say such a thing. I said he had to correct this; and, over a week later the newspaper published a small and unfair correction because the mistakes that I mentioned were the headlines of the story on the front page. I was not convinced with the corrections made and I issued a press statement denying what was published and the mistakes about a relationship between Al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab.