Hugh MacLeod and Nasser Arrabyee in Sanaa
The Observer, Sunday 3 January 2010
When Yemeni MiG-29 aircraft sent missiles crashing into a suspected terrorist training camp in al-Majalah, a remote area of Abyan in the south, the local reaction quickly turned from horror to anger.
al-Qaida which helped train him. Mohammed Saleh al-Kazimi, the leader of al-Qaida in Abyan and head of the local Ambor tribe, along with his wife and children, was among them. But they were far from the only casualties.
The raids, a week before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to blow up a Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, succeeded in killing key figures in the Yemeni wing of
Local sources said about 50 people were killed, and some 60 injured. It was said that the al-Qaida fighters had been living in the village alongside their families, training at a camp just metres from the homes. But the deaths of women and children enraged some locals.
"Kazimi has the right to live with his family, and if he is a member of al-Qaida then he should have been punished alone," said Mukbel Ali al-Ambori, a leader of the Ambor tribe. "But 45 women and children and more than 1,000 animals were killed."
Officials accused one of the leaders of Yemen's southern separatist movement, Tarek al-Fadhli, a powerful local tribal chief, of allowing al-Qaida to run the camp under his protection.
The deputy prime minister for defence and security affairs, Rashad al-Alimi, said 24 al-Qaida suspects were killed, most of them Ambor tribesmen, but also two Saudis, two Pakistanis and an unknown number of Egyptians, as well as five other unidentified foreigners. A security source said five al-Qaida operatives were injured and later arrested in
the southern port city of Aden.
The recriminations in the aftermath of the al-Majalah raid underline the dilemmas facing the Yemeni government and its deeply unpopular western allies, as they combat the emerging terrorist threat in the country's east and south. Later this month Gordon Brown will host an emergency summit on Yemen.
Abdulmutallab is believed to have received al-Qaida training at a similar camp to the one devastated a week before Christmas. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the failed attack, saying it was retaliation for the US military support to Yemen in its offensive against the militants. But disentangling a hostile local population from the al-Qaida fighters and leaders who have infiltrated the region will be a hugely difficult task.
Senior Yemeni officials told the Observer that al-Qaida had been successful at buying the loyalty of local people.
"No one gets recruited free of charge. Al-Qaida come with resources to pay people," said Abdel Karim Aryani, an adviser to Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. "The religious appeal helps, but poverty is at the root of all Yemen's problems, including al-Qaida."
Speaking to the Observer two days before the Abyan air strike, the commander of Yemen's British- and US-trained counter-terrorism forces warned of the difficulties of attacking al-Qaida where it is hosted by local tribes.
"Al-Qaida touch on very sensitive issues in tribal areas. They come in the name of God and religion and talk about Palestine and the occupation of Iraq and people sympathise with them," said Brigadier Yehya Abdullah Saleh, a nephew of the president. "We don't want to fight with the tribes, so it is better to take out al-Qaida members one by one when they are separate from the tribes, or we risk a big war."
New details on the pre-Christmas raids suggest that US support and effective intelligence-gathering helped Yemen strike a serious blow against al-Qaida, but that its top leadership, including a member of the al-Qaida cell that attacked the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, narrowly escaped death. And reporting by the Observer reveals the extent to which al-Qaida has integrated itself with powerful tribes that control large swaths of Yemen's rugged east and parts of its south.
The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen remains a tribal society, as complicated to rule as Afghanistan, where clan elders and the armed men they command often trump the authority of the central government.
The Yemeni people are among the most heavily armed in the world. In a population of 25 million, there are believed to be some 60 million guns, while carrying arms is a rite of passage for young men growing up inside the traditions of their tribe.
The authorities said they were compelled to launch the all-out offensive on AQAP after receiving intelligence that an eight-man al-Qaida cell was poised to launch a wave of car bombings and suicide attacks against western targets.
According to an official statement, the targets included the British embassy in Sanaa, previous targeted in a foiled attack in 2005, as well as schools – presumably those teaching western students, such as the capital's many language centres, one of which Abdulmutallab studied at – and oil companies.
As the air force pounded Abyan at dawn on 17 December, counter-terrorism forces stormed an al-Qaida safe house in Arhab, 70km north-east of Sanaa. In the ensuing gun battle three of the would-be suicide bombers were killed, said a security source, including Hani al-Shalan, a former Guantánamo prisoner released to Yemen in June 2006.
Qasem al-Raimi, a top military commander of AQAP, escaped the Arhab raid along with Hezam Mujali, a leader of the suicide bombers. Hezam's brother Arif was captured, along with six others, and taken for interrogation. In February 2006, Raimi, the military commander, had escaped from a maximum-security prison in Yemen along with Nasser Wahayshi, now the leader of AQAP.
In Sanaa, meanwhile, counter-terrorism officers raided homes, arresting 14 suspected al-Qaida operatives who were to have provided assistance to the suicide bombers.
But the attacks on Arhab and Abyan prompted an angry response by local tribes. Meeting at their traditional gathering place, leaders of the Arhab tribe discussed how to secure the release of several of their members arrested in the raid, including the brother of an MP, Sheikh Mansour Ali al-Hanaq, whose relative fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Prominent members of the Arhab tribe include one of Yemen's senior religious scholars, Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Zindani, who was listed in 2004 by the US as a specially designated global terrorist for his suspected links to Osama bin Laden. It is not known if he attended the meeting.
At the site of the Abyan air strike a couple of days later, al-Qaida member Mohamed Saleh al-Awlaki urged a gathering of thousands of tribesmen to stand by al-Qaida.
"The war in Yemen is between al-Qaida and the US, and not between al-Qaida and the Yemeni army," shouted Mohammed, who was filmed with his face uncovered. "Victory is coming soon," he promised.
Awlaki was a relative of Fahd al-Kusaa, once imprisoned for his involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole, and also a cousin of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Yemeni preacher who lectured some of the 11 September hijackers and was in contact with Nidal Hassan, the US army psychiatrist, in the months leading up to his massacre at Fort Hood.
Local sources and Yemeni security officials said AQAP's leaders, Nasser Wahayshi and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shihri, who was released from Guantánamo in 2008, travelled to Abyan to mourn the death of Kazimi, the tribesman who had led the local al-Qaida cell.
After the funeral the senior AQAP men were tracked, most probably by US drones, back to a farm in Rafdh in Shabwa, 600km east of Sanaa, belonging to Fahd al-Qusaa, the USS Cole bomber.
An official statement said the farm was being used for a meeting chaired by Wahayshi and Shihri. On 24 December, a day before the failed Detroit terror attack, missiles slammed into the farmhouse, killing at least five confirmed al-Qaida members: Mohammed Awlaki and four of his relatives. Brigadier Saleh, the head of Yemen's counter-terrorism forces, told the Observer that the war against al-Qaida in his country is far from over, urging more assistance for his troops from the US and Britain.