Local News Political Analysis

Al-Qaeda in Southern Yemen: Rumor or Reality?

Sheikh Lahmar Lasood

In the heart of restive South, tribes deny the existence of Al-Qaeda and the “al-Sahawat” fail to pursue them

Arafat Modabesh

Special to National Yemen

Recently, there has been a lot of talk on the presence of Anwar Al-Awlaqi, a Yemeni-American hard-line cleric, in the mountains of Shabwa province and his taking refuge from the pursuit of security forces among the al-Awaleq tribes.

This is a fact confirmed by his father, the former minister Dr. Naser Al-Awlaqi, on many occasions. However, this journalist’s ability to interview the third most wanted man on terror issues in the world, Fahd Al-Qasa, in the mountains of Shabwa, undermines common views about the hideout of Anwar Al-Awlaqi.

The interview with Fahd Al-Qasa was not an easy thing, as some people think. It had been considered an impossible task; however, it is a reality now. The interview has refuted the claims about his death in an airstrike in the Waziristan region in Pakistan.

He seemed, when we met him, an ordinary man, like any citizen in any Yemeni region where males wear weapons almost all the time.

The only thing that we noticed is that he appeared homeless and adrift in those harsh mountains. In addition, he is a man of few words and very selective in everything he uttered.

It was difficult to imagine that he was being pursued, given that he was among his own people, but, of course, he can’t go to his home in the region of Rafadh, although the Yemeni government cannot get to him easily even there.

And were the security services to carry out a security campaign to capture him, he and those with him would likely be able to leave their hiding place before the tanks and armored military vehicles could get to them.

On the other hand, there is Anwar Al-Awlaqi, who is also wanted dead or alive by Washington. News has it that he might be hiding in the directorate of Al-Sa’eed in Shabwa province, as well.

If you want to visit this region, you must take a vehicle capable of driving in those mountainous areas, and must also leave Ataq city, the capital of Shabwa, to the west on the road leading to Abyan province, then Aden and after you go a few kilometers on this road, you will come to a crossroads, which on the right takes you to the center of Al-Sa’eed directorate where the well-known Al-Awaleq tribes live.

Not only do Fahd Al-Qasa and Anwar Al-Awlaqi and others who have been accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda and of conducting terrorism belong to these tribes, but also many Yemeni leaders and icons were born among those tribes, occupying various high political, military and commercial positions.

To these tribes belong the present Prime Minister, Dr. Ali Mohammed Mujawar and other State and community figures. Therefore, there is a kind of indignation among the citizens of charging these historically-rich tribes with terrorism, just because some of their members belong to Al-Qaeda. People believe that the generalization is unfair.

Al-Sa’eed directorate has as its center and capital a city by the same name, which has a long history, along with its many multi-story buildings. It is divided into two halves, as is the case with the Al-Awaleq regions and the Yemeni mountainous regions in general.

When a visit was paid to this directorate-city, we found a fierce unprecedented reservation towards the issue of terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and Anwar Al-Awlaqi.

When we visited the most reputed sheikh of the tribes of Al-Awaleq, Sheikh Fareed Ben Abu Bakr, we found him in his home with a number of his followers, escorts and eminent men of the tribe.

The man was skeptical of the presence of a pressman in his territory and in his home. His son, Abu Bakr, the directorate’s chief, had received us rudely before he knew why we were there, what our press agenda was, and what questions we had.

Among the notable features in Al-Sa’eed is the diversity of people’s loyalties despite the small size of the town and the fact that all the people there belong to one tribe and live under the umbrella of that tribe. In Al-Sa’eed, you will find people who belong to the southern movement; other people belong to the opposition Joint Meeting Parties and still others belong to the ruling party. There are also people who have extreme religious tendencies and some other people do not belong to any of these.

People here refuse to even talk about Anwar Al-Awlaqi, as if he was a freak whose curse might bring bad luck to those who talk about him. The people of the region deny the presence of terrorists wanted by the US and the Yemeni authorities. Others just deny the existence of Al-Qaeda there, as Ali Mujawar has.

The leader of the southern movement in Al-Sa’eed directorate, said, “al-Qaeda was sent to us from Sana’a in order to strike the southern movement.” He said that Anwar Al-Awlaqi “is not wanted by us at all, and he has never had the protection of his tribe and we do not know where he is.”

Mujawar believes that the rumor about the presence of Al-Awlaqi in the mountains of Shabwa is “a rumor with the purpose of hurting the people of Al-Awaleq,” adding that Anwar Al-Awlaqi “is hiding, but the authorities know exactly where he is.”

The Yemeni authorities have resorted to a new method for confronting Al-Qaeda in Shabwa province and created public forces with the name “Al-Sahawat” or “Awakening,” similar to that in Iraq.

The al-Sahawat were created from many hundreds of fighters from the sons of Shabwa tribes in order to pursue Al-Qaeda elements. However, a few months later, ever since these forces were formed, no real pursuit operation has been announced.

Some people from Shabwa say that these militias have made field operations in some regions for only several hours in search of wanted Al-Qaeda elements. Member of the local council, Ali Abdullah Abdul-Salam, also known as Mullah Zabarah, is sarcastic about that operation and says that the Al-Awaleq district is hard to inspect in a period of years, let alone for a few hours.

He adds that the creation of the al-Sahawat was just “to obtain funds from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom we are confident is against Al-Qaeda. However, those who are below him make a game of the country,” he says.

Zabarah denies that the Al-Awaleq tribes provide protection for wanted al-Qaeda operatives, saying “No one is protecting them, and the State has not come to pursue them; if forces come to the region, the people would not prevent them.”

He adds that because the State has not carried out any projects in those regions, the people are not cooperative.”

Sheikh Lahmar Lasood, an eminent social figure in the Al-Awaleq district, does not acknowledge the presence of al-Sahawat in reality, saying “There is no such thing as al-Sahawat or coordination between the authorities and the tribes.” He describes such an entity as “a charade by some persons and it ended with time.”

Continuous attempts have been made to communicate with Aref Al-Zooka, member of the General Secretariat (political bureau) of the General People’s Congress and one of the residents of the region responsible for the file of Al-Sahawat, in order to hear his view on the arguments about the entity he has formed –  but in vain.

Sheikh Lahmar agrees with Mullah Zabarah’s argument that the tribes do not provide protection for wanted Al-Qaeda elements and considers this “impossible”. He believes that anyone who blames others is the one who failed to take responsibility in the first place; accordingly, the tribes are being blamed.

Sheikh Lahmar Lasood adds, “We have gotten used to law and order in Shabwa and the rest of the southern provinces and we are not protectors of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is not welcome here and people believe that Al-Qaeda is part of the State and operates by remote control.”

He denies the presence of Anwar Al-Awlaqi, saying, “This is not true and we wish a military force would come to the region – we will not confront it.”

Mohammed Al-Ahmadi, a journalist specializing in the al-Qaeda affairs in Yemen, believes that creating tribal armed militias to confront al-Qaeda elements in Shabwa province in the South East of the country is part of an official policy of combatting other problems, which complicates matters most of the time.”

Al-Ahmadi says that the so-called “Sahawat Al-Yemen” is “an attempt to adopt the Iraqi experience. However, in my opinion, it is a failed attempt because the conditions and geography are totally different.

“For example, the tribes that fought al-Qaeda in Iraq were some day part of the insurgent movements themselves, which gave it the chance to obtain accurate details about the leaders and elements of al-Qaeda and their movements and consequently it facilitated their targeting later on.

“At the same time, the Yemeni tribes realize that the Sahawat of Iraq remained targets for assassination and reprisals over the last few years. As a result, it doesn’t seem that the Shabwa tribes or other tribes will be ready to enter into an open war with the Al-Qaeda elements, some of whom belong to these tribes themselves.”

Al-Ahmadi emphasizes that the Yemeni government “might succeed in winning over hundreds of the people of the tribes to support it against al-Qaeda elements. However, this will not ensure its capacity of rooting out the organization from these regions.

“It is possible that these tribes might benefit handsomely from the government support and privileges they will get, but at the same time they may agree with the Al-Qaeda elements on certain things, while those armed people leave their positions in those regions and do not to reappear.”

Anyone who investigates the issue of the presence or non-presence of Al-Qaeda in Shabwa could come to the conclusion that Al-Qaeda does not really exist there at all.

However, there is something suspicious and ambiguous to the situation, both in the tribes’ denial of the presence of the wanted elements who are originally from there, and also in the government’s holding the tribesmen responsible for the presence of the Al-Qaeda in principle.

It may well be that these events are being affected by the political conflict that is taking place in south Yemen.