In Yemen, there is no doubt that the government has a huge terrorism problem.
Recent political instability has weakened the Yemeni government’s hold on its territory.
The local al-Qaeda affiliate has taken advantage of that grabbing control of much of southern Yemen.
The US government has stepped up its drone strikes there, but southern Yemen remain an al-Qaeda stronghold.
After months of negotiations with the militants, reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, and director Safa Alahmad of our partner Frontline were able to enter the al-Qaeda region. The documentary “Al-Qaeda in Yemen” airs on PBS tonight.
See more from FRONTLINE.
Anchor Marco Werman talks to Alahmad who says it was unnerving to be under the constant watch of al-Qaeda handlers.
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Marco Werman: As we’ve heard, the Syrian government blames terrorists for much of the violence there, but few outside Syria believe that. In Yemen there’s no doubt that the government has a huge terrorist problem. Recent political instability has weekend the Yemeni’s government’s hold on its territory. The local Al Qaeda affiliate has taken advantage of that, grabbing control of much of southern Yemen. The U.S. has stepped up its drone strikes there, hoping to help the government, but southern Yemen remains an Al-Qaeda stronghold. After months of negotiations with the militants reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and director Safa al-Ahmad of our partner program, Frontline, were able to enter the Al Qaeda held region. Their documentary, Al Qaeda in Yemen airs tonight on PBS. Safa al-Ahmad says it was unnerving to be under the constant watch of Al Qaeda handlers.
Safa al-Ahmad: Yeah. As a woman you have specific concerns with Al Qaeda. I was trying to be super, super careful, like, not to walk the wrong way. When you’re filming you need to do angles and you kind of forget yourself. That worried me the most. It just takes one wrong move for them to possibly feel offended and for them to say, “That’s it, we’re shipping them off.”
Werman: At one point Ghaith goes to a prison where some detainees are kept by Al Qaeda. You asked to go and they say yes, but you’ve got to be blindfolded and they shove you in the car. What was that like?
al-Ahmad: Being blindfolded is not a nice thing, and I was already completely covered.
Werman: Being blindfolded by Al Qaeda is even worse.
al-Ahmad: I was already wearing the burqa, so only my eyes were showing. It just made it more difficult for me to breathe, so you feel more uneasy. The prison was a very specific situation. In the town they were more relaxed, but when we got into the prison they were super edgy.
Werman: So, going through these towns and villages that are now under Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula control, what were they like? What’s happening there?
al-Ahmad: I think when we visited it was highly controlled in a way. I can’t comfortably say that I knew what the natural situation would have been there. They made a point of telling us that they’re providing water and electricity. They abolished taxes. They were really into running the town. They have their own sharia courts. People were coming in that had cases that had been waiting 15 years to resolve, and, of course, the judges were resolving them [snaps fingers] like that, so it made a big difference, I think, for the people on the ground in that way.
Werman: Safa, did you see evidence of what the Yemeni government is doing or not doing that helped you understand why Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has managed to subdue so many towns and villages?
al-Ahmad: Well, effectively, the Yemeni government in the south has become defunct. They really are not functioning as a proper government. They’re not providing basic services and things like that, like, even, a job. Before Al Qaeda took it over the army hadn’t been there for two years. They didn’t really attack the town, kill the army, and take it over; the army wasn’t there.
Werman: We often equate Al Qaeda with the Taliban because of the Afghanistan experience, but, in Yemen, are the trappings of that kind of relationship evident? I mean, no music, oppression of women… Is it a different situation?
al-Ahmad: It is a very different situation. In Yemen what we had observed is that, especially in the second town we went to, Azzan, the judge there was telling us, “Listen we learned our lesson from Iraq.” The atrocities they committed in Iraq really was the push that caused them to lose power in Iraq. Right? He said, “We learned our lesson. We’re not going to do that.” They worked really hard on what they like to call the [??] campaign. They connected electricity to towns. They hadn’t had electricity in 20 years! [??] was giving us a little tour of the town and he said, “We haven’t banned the smoking or the chew, khat.” It’s a plant…
Werman: It’s a stimulant, narcotic. Yeah.
al-Ahmad: They didn’t ban that. He said, “Not now. It’s not the time.”
Werman: One thing at a time.
al-Ahmad: One thing at a time. So, obviously they’re being more pragmatic.
Werman: Well, it’s a compelling and, I’ve got to say, brave bit of reporting that you and Gaith did. Safa al-Ahmad, thanks for coming in.
al-Ahmad: Thanks for having me.
Werman: Safa al-Ahmad directed Al Qaeda in Yemen which airs on Frontline on PBS stations tonight.
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