It‘s a striking place where time seems to have stopped dead centuries ago and yet it harbours a modern global threat – armed, diabolically dangerous and very tech savvy.
Yemen is the staging post for much of Al Qaeda’s indoctrination programs, terror training – it’s even where the nebulous terror collective hosts its glossy and inflammatory internet publications.
And playing the tune here is an American citizen, the United States itself wants cauterised, captured or killed.
His name, Anwar Al Awlaki.
His devotees - including Australians - are hearing his call and heading to the un-policed corners of this struggling country to sign up for jihad, framing their targets in the west.
“Al Qaeda is many things but it is not stupid. And it understands that if it can recruit people who don’t fit profiles, who can breeze through airports, who don’t raise anyalarms that again this is a very potent weapon in their hands.” BARBARA BODINE Former US Ambassador, Yemen.
In this report, Trevor Bormann enters this mediaeval den on the trail of the master and his marionettes.
An undercover intelligence professional tells Bormann that his own investigative sorties into Yemen - including evidence gathered on-site at training camps - reveal an undeniable Australian presence.
“These Australians and the other students are being trained for terrorist missions. No question. Their value is their Australian passport.”
UNDERCOVER INTELLIGENCE PROFESSIONALAs people power rocks the Arab world and new uncertainties and instabilities erupt, Yemen can ill afford a collapse of authority and a power vacuum which may see the Al Qaeda threat metastasise.
Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee reports on the political, security, economic and social developments in Yemen.
BORMANN: For centuries this breathtaking land has drawn adventurers from afar, but now some who travel here do so in stealth.
They have a calling they’d like to keep from the outside world.
This poorest of Arab nations has become Al Qaeda’s new frontier, and a launching pad for Jihadi inspired terrorism.
In an atmosphere of distrust, foreigners and Yemenis alike are being watched and those suspected of collaborating with the enemy, can very quickly wind up in a chaotic courtroom.
It’s judgement day in the country’s latest terror trial and the young prisoner is a dubious jihadi.
Nineteen-year-old Hisham Assem has already confessed to killing his employer, a Frenchman. He appears amused by all the attention.
Hisham Assem’s counsel says he’s a most unlikely terrorist and that the court has not heard the full story.
The defence lawyer say that Mr Assem’s boss sexually harassed him, so he picked up a Kalashnikov and shot him six times.
But the prosecution says this is no ordinary criminal case, this is a terrorist case because this man was inspired by Al Qaeda.
There is one man in Yemen who is the inspiration for Al Qaeda. It’s America’s own wayward Imam Anwar Al Awlaki.
He’s urged every Yemeni to kill a foreigner, so therefore every murder of an outsider is considered an act of terrorism here.
Hisham Assem is sentenced to hang. JUDGE: “As the evidence shows, the court has given the right decision”.
BORMANN: The execution of a terrorist looks good for a nation that has to be seen to be clamping down on extremism and for good measure, the judge also sentences Anwar Al Awlaki in absentia to ten years.
Gaols are full of men and women accused of collaborating with extremist groups. The West has urged this country to be suspicious of its own citizens – perhaps to its own peril.
BARBARA BODINE: [Fmr US Ambassador to Yemen] “I think there is a very high risk of radicalising people by putting them in gaol, particularly those where the association is unclear, where they are not operational.
I think it’s a major problem”.BORMANN: Caught up in this uneven, often arbitrary crackdown are foreigners.
Are they here to see the sights, search for a deep understanding of their religion, or have they heard the calling of the pied piper of Jihad, Anwar Al Awlaki?For years Australian Muslims have been coming here to study in the highly regarded Islamic schools of this pious nation, but more than twenty Australian citizens have been listed by western intelligence agencies as ‘persons of interest’ for their alleged involvement in radical organisations.
Some it seems have simply disappeared here, others are under surveillance as just having passed through.
One traveller who has felt the sting of this renewed focus by the Yemeni authorities may surprise – a young woman from country New South Wales.
Shyloh Giddins is so protective of her privacy, there are no images of her in the public domain. But we do know this Muslim convert left a broken marriage behind in Australia and arrived here in 2006 with her two small children.
Yemen offered the chance to teach English and take on Islamic studies, but on a May morning last year, Yemeni security forces came knocking.
“So the policeman came to her house here?”ABDUL RAHMAN BARMAN: “Yes, two cars... policemen”.
BORMANN: Shyloh Giddins has not and won’t discuss her case but her Yemeni lawyer, Abdul Rahman Barman, told me she was taken from her apartment for questioning over claimed links with Al Qaeda.
Her children were left behind to fend for themselves, and while she faced interrogation in prison over the next four weeks, it was left to him to negotiate through a security cordon outside the apartment, to feed the children.
ABDUL RAHMAN BARMAN: “I managed to get the kids food, drinks, chocolates, presents and water”.
BORMANN: Acting on information passing between the FBI and ASIO, the Australian Government had told Shyloh Giddins her passport would be cancelled.
A move designed to lure her back to Australia. This letter obtained by Foreign Correspondent, accuses her of being likely to engage in conduct that might prejudice the security of Australia or a foreign country.
Her ASIO assessment argued she had an extremist interpretation of Islam. But once tipped off, the Yemeni police got to her first.
ABDUL RAHMAN BARMAN: “She was a plain woman - a teacher - well considered by her neighbours and students.
She didn’t have any extremist ideas or enmity against any party”.BORMANN: Australian diplomats negotiated Shyloh Giddins’ release from prison.
She’s now back in Australia. But her treatment shows the depth of scrutiny of foreigners in Yemen, where the clampdown is motivated and rewarded by western intelligence agencies.
ABDUL RAHMAN BARMAN: The government profits from the existence of Al Qaeda. To be able to get more financial support from the Americans and the West the Yemeni government exaggerates the importance of Al Qaeda”.
BORMANN: We have no evidence that Shyloh Giddins was involved with extremist groups, but regardless of whether she knew Anwar Al Awlaki, he was aware of her.
In an Internet speech last November, Anwar Al Awlaki condemned authorities for their treatment of Shyloh Giddins.
ANWAR AL AWLAKI: “The Australian government asked the American intelligence services who in turn ordered the Yemeni government to imprison the sister. As for the sister, she was submitted to six hours of questioning daily, standing on her feet”.
BORMANN: Yemen is at war with itself on many fronts and is keen to show us its troops in training.
There’s a rebellion in the north of the country, an uprising in the south and Yemen’s long serving Presidential strongman now has the beginnings of a popular uprising to worry about.
But there’s another conflict here that’s really the only one the US and its allies care about for now.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken root in the desert here, often collaborating with tribal chiefs to establish its training camps.
Leading this country’s war against Al Qaeda is Brigadier General Yahya Saleh, nephew of the President.
BRIG. GEN. YAHYA SALEH: “We are an open country to all tourists and we cannot check who is tourist and who is terrorist until we find out through our intelligence agencies or through the cooperation between different intelligence agencies in different countries”.
BORMANN: “Do you think it’s possible or likely that there are Australians here, members of Al Qaeda in these camps?”
BRIG. GEN. YAHYA SALEH: “Until now we don’t have any idea about that”.
BORMANN: “Do you think…”.BRIG. GEN. YAHYA SALEH: “But if there is you will be the first one to know”.BORMANN: The trail of the Australian jihadis has taken us on a detour to the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Foreign Correspondent has for some months been in contact with an intelligence operative who claims to have infiltrated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular.
Samir we’ll call him, met me in a hotel to recount his experiences.Samir’s account under cover is explosive, but so highly sensitive and dangerous is his job, we’re using an actor to portray precisely what he told me.
SAMIR: “So I want to show you the first camp”.
BORMANN: Samir says he travelled under cover to a training camp in Shabwa Province where he observed two men identified by camp leaders as Australians.
SAMIR: “They looked very European to me. The first man, he was about twenty-two years old. He spoke poor Arabic and I remember he had the early growth of a beard.
They told me his mother was Arab, but he looked European. The second Australian, he was older, maybe thirty years old and I remember he had a beard dyed red from henna.
This man, he seemed agitated and uncomfortable and because I was new at the time, he was uneasy and he tried to hide his face”.
BORMANN: “What type of training did they have?”SAMIR: “All kinds, all kinds. They had Islamic studies, they have training in weapons, they have training in explosives.
They also have a classroom with computers for training on the Internet”.BORMANN: Samir claims he visited a second more remote camp, this one in Abyan Province.
There he found a totally self reliant community of about one thousand men, women and children. The foreign recruits were provided Yemeni girls and women to marry.
SAMIR: “In this place I saw four or five Australians. They were of Indonesian origin but they had Australian passports. One of them went by the name of Abu Nassir.
I saw Germans there too and Somalis, Saudis. They were all involved in some kind of psychological training to make them strong”.
BARBARA BODINE: If for whatever has motivated you to want to join the world wide Jihad and you look at..... I can go to Iraq, I can go to Afghanistan, I can go to Pakistan or I can go to Yemen, Yemen is a much better place to go”.
BORMANN: There is one name that has become synonymous with Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsular.
Of Yemeni descent but American born, cleric Anwar Al Awlaki is the first US citizen ever placed on his country’s official assassination list.
With his perfect English, Anwar Al Awlaki’s Internet sermons preach contempt for non-believers or kuffar.
ANWAR AL AWLAKI: [Internet sermon] “The important lesson to learn here is never ever trust a kuffar. Do not trust them”.
BORMANN: He was accused of conspiring with a US army major who killed thirteen people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, and in the same year, Al Awlaki is claimed to have offered guidance to the so-called ‘underpants bomber’ who planned to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Al Awlaki is now hiding in Yemen, after being released from prison there, but borders are no barrier to the man dubbed the Osama Bin Laden of the Internet.
BARBARA BODINE: “He is a motivational speaker, he is a recruiter”.
BORMANN: It was on Barbara Bodine’s watch that Al Qaeda first struck in Yemen. She was American Ambassador when in 2000, a suicide bomber attacked the USS Cole in Aden Harbour, killing seventeen sailors.
Eleven years later, Anwar Al Awlaki has become the human face of Al Qaeda.
BARBARA BODINE: “Those who are on the path of self radicalisation now know where to go and we’ve turned him into a perverse kind of hero for them.
So yes, I think to a certain extent, he is a creature of our invention as well as anything that he could have ever dreamed to be on his own”.
BORMANN: To get a sense of the evolution of this firebrand and the lure and seduction of his message, I’ve come to the neighbourhoods around Washington DC where Anwar Al Awlaki once preached a moderate brand of Islam.
His one time spiritual brother, Imam Abdul Malik Johari claims Muslims like Anwar Al Awlaki are radicalised because they feel they have no voice.
IMAM JOHARI: “If I talk about it on the Friday sermon what’s happening..... if people hear me talk about that pain, now I’m a collaborator.
This is a problem. So where do young people talk about it who feel those pains and frustrations? They go to the Internet”.
(TO CONGREGATION) I know some of you are still not convinced that to resist is not a bad thing. The question is, how does one resist.
BORMANN: Anwar Al Awlaki spent his formative years preaching in these American Mosques. He even publicly denounced the September 11 attacks, even though the CIA now claims he was the spiritual adviser to two of the hijackers.
But then in 2004 he returned to Yemen where he was arrested and interrogated for his alleged association with extremists.
It’s then, according to Imam Johari, that his transformation from American citizen to enemy of the State was sealed.
IMAM JOHARI: “He claims he was tortured and I think in that environment he might get to a point to say, you know you’re torturing me.
I’m an American citizen, you need to get your hands off me. And they said really? Well let me tell you something.
You’re an American citizen? Your government asked us to do this to you”.
BORMANN: The United States is pouring tens of millions of dollars of military and security aid into Yemen on the understanding that Yemen must get serious about Al Qaeda.
There are frequent military clashes in and around the remote camps in the south and east of the country, but the elusive Anwar Al Awlaki remains in hiding.
If there’s any doubt about how Al Qaeda views the Internet as a weapon of choice, you only have to look at its official on line magazine. It’s called “Inspire”.
It’s slick and incredibly well produced and laid out and it’s written in flawless English. There are messages from Osama Bin Laden, but this is also a terrorist manual.
There are stories about how to make a bomb on your mother’s kitchen table, how to use your pick up truck to mow down as many people as possible.
This is clearly aimed at young and impressionable Americans, British and Australians and it’s made right here in Yemen.
But those who follow the call to Al Qaeda’s training camps can be badly let down, according to the man who has lost young men to the seduction of extremism.
IMAM JOHARI: “They have a narrative that says, I listened to this Internet rhetoric. I got my backpack and I went to country A and then to the third country to get on the front of the Jihad and when I got there I found out that the Mullah was having boys as child sex slaves.
When I got there I found out that they were trading opium for money so they could buy weapons, while they expected us to go out, unprepared, unsupplied, to meet the enemy”.
BORMANN: For those with the path to Jihad in their dreams, the holy war can still be plotted in communion with others.
Samir, the Arab spy who claims to have infiltrated Al Qaeda told me there was no doubt about the purpose of the two camps he visited, nor the motivation of the Australians he observed. This is his account, an actor conveying exactly what he said to me.
SAMIR: “These Australians and other students are being trained for terrorist missions, no question. Their value is in their Australian passports”.
BORMANN: “Who’s running these camps? Who’s in control?”
SAMIR: “Well the money it comes from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, but their leader, their leader is Anwar Al Awlaki. He is their spiritual guiding father.
He is second only to Osama bin Laden. He knows, he knows that the Internet is more powerful than the gun”.
BARBARA BODINE: “Al Qaeda is many things but it’s not stupid and it understands that if it can recruit people who don’t fit profiles, who can breeze through airports, who don’t raise any alarms, then again this is a very potent weapon in their hands”.
BORMANN: “Australian intelligence agencies say there are at least twenty Australian citizens who have disappeared from the radar after going to Yemen, does that surprise you?”BARBARA BODINE: “Not particularly.
In another place they might end up in an urban gang, in another place they might be part of a drug cartel.
I think it’s a deeper phenomena and some of them drift into Jihadism, but the question is why?”IMAM JOHARI: “You know I think injustice radicalises people.
The root causes are that we create an environment that makes it easy to radicalise people and we’re going to have to stop that”.
BORMANN: A nation running out of water and running out of oil can barely look after itself, let alone fight wars from within.
This frail state is not yet a failed state but for as long as these deserts are fertile grounds for Al Qaeda, the world will care about Yemen for perhaps all the wrong reasons.