AL-QAEDA, Yemen (AFP) – Surrounded by mountains and weighed down by poverty, a Yemeni town bears the dubious honour of carrying the same name as Al-Qaeda.
The residents of Al-Qaeda, 220 kilometres (135 miles) northwest of the capital Sanaa, say the name has brought shame on the town.
Al-Qaeda (Arabic for ‘the base’) was once a commercial hub where custom duties on trade between north and south Yemen were collected decades ago, according to older residents.
“The name of the town of Al-Qaeda has nothing to do with the organisation headed by (Osama) bin Laden,” Colonel Abdullah al-Shaddadi, the local security chief, told AFP.
But the inhabitants have been faced with “suspicion” because of the name ever since the rise of the jihadist group led by bin Laden, whose ancestral homeland is Yemen, Shaddadi said.
“There are many of them who are lucky enough to receive scholarships to study abroad, but they face trouble because Al-Qaeda is their hometown,” the security chief said.
“One of Al-Qeada’s inhabitants travelled to an Arab country for medical treatment, but airport authorities detained and interrogated him, and then sent him back after finding the name of Al-Qaeda in his passport,” he said.
But the link has also brought a measure of fame to the town as “foreign journalists come to visit only for its name,” he said.
In an attempt to clear the record, Shaddadi said the town “has many people who drink alcohol and consume drugs,” both of which are strictly forbidden in Islam. “How could those be followers of bin Laden?”
He insisted Al-Qaeda was “absolutely free of jihadists and extremists.”
The Arabian peninsula country as a whole has been the target of a string of attacks claimed by Al-Qaeda militants on foreign missions, tourist sites and oil installations.
The militants, believed to be regrouping in lawless parts of the country, especially eastern Yemen, have suffered setbacks amid US pressure on the government to crack down.
While extremism is not an issue in this town of 70,000 people, of whom 90 percent live below the poverty line, Al-Qaeda has become a safe haven for drug traffickers and alcohol dealers.
Those are taking advantage of the deteriorating economy and “recruit its people to merchandise drugs,” another security official said.
“A number of drug, hashish and alcohol dealers have been detained throughout various Yemeni provinces, but most of them come from Al-Qaeda city,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Amid charges of complicity with criminal gangs, Shaddadi complained of how one of his men was slapped by a local official and forced to release a murder suspect.
Even though poverty stares them in the face, hospitality towards strangers is a must for the people of Al-Qaeda.
“Al-Qaeda is a beautiful place but there are those trying to tamper with its beauty and turn it into a base for criminal gangs,” said resident Ahmed al-Sabri, 45.
“Twenty years ago, Al-Qaeda residents knew nothing about bandits and criminals who kill innocent people. But today, armed groups have been formed to rob and kill with impunity,” he said.
Across Al-Qaeda, which has no paved roads and where cheap motorbikes are the most common means of transportation, all the talk is of chaos and government negligence.
“The state cannot do anything about the sewage that passes next to my home which has left me and my family with all sorts of illnesses. No a month passes without a family member being hospitalised,” lamented an elderly man.