In a two-part series, The Guardian‘s intrepid Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports from Yemen:
With its conservative Islam, ragged mountains, unruly tribes and problems of illiteracy, unemployment and extreme poverty, Yemen has been dubbed the new Afghanistan by security experts.
The Guardian spent two months in the country, travelling to the tribal regions of Abyan and Shabwa, where al-Qaida has set up shop and where suspected US drone attacks have killed scores of civilians and few insurgents. Speaking to jihadis, security officials and tribesmen, it became clear how a combination of government alliances, bribes, broken promises and bungled crackdowns has allowed Islamists to flourish and led to the emergence of the country as a regional hub for al-Qaida.
You don’t have to go deep into the mountains to hear the jihadi message. One Friday, sitting on the roof of a hotel in Sana’a, I hear the amplified prayers of a preacher ring out at the end of his sermon: “God condemn the Jews and the Christians … God make their wives and children our slaves … God defeat them and make the believers victorious.”
Ahmad al-Daghasha, a Yemeni writer who specialises in Islamic and jihadi issues, says two factors are responsible for the growing influence of al-Qaida. “First there is the local situation, which is miserable, politically and economically,” he says. “That situation is translated into many forms of resistance – the jihadis and al-Qaida are only one. Then there is the foreign oppression that we all see on television – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine – that gives al-Qaida’s rhetoric legitimacy.”
In the second-part of this report, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes:
Ferocious blood feuds have been raging for years in Shabwa. Almost every tribesman in the region finds himself entangled in the cycle of revenge.
The barren desert and mountain are divided into patches of small tribal war zones. As we travelled in Shabwa we often had to leave the main track and drive deep into the desert to avoid passing through the land of a tribe with which someone in our car had a blood feud.
“We would like to go to school,” says Ibrahim, a hazel-eyed 16-year-old tribesman who was sitting in the back of the car with a wrapped head shawl. “But we had to stop, because someone might track us there and kill us.”
I asked him if he had seen much fighting. “Yes,” he answered. “Many times.”
The tribesmen exist in perpetual poverty in this harsh landscape. When ‑ if ‑ water comes, it moves fast down thin rocky valleys, leaving the desert as thirsty as before. Apart from a few patches of farmed land, the rest is desert.
Being so poor, the people have little to fight over except their honour.
The only way for an insult to be avenged was by killing the enemy, calling his name so he would turn – it’s a shame to kill a man in his back – and shoot him while looking into his eyes. The culture of hospitality is taken so seriously that one tribal feud that has been going for two years was over a guest who was insulted.
Ali tells how the inter-tribal battles sometimes included heavier armaments. “Last year we besieged a neighbouring tribe. We took anti-aircraft guns and mortars. We shelled them for three days and we besieged them for weeks, until they had nothing to eat but biscuits.”
Against this backdrop of armed, perpetually fighting tribes, where it sometimes seems every other man is wanted by the authorities for a murder or two, al-Qaida can easily blend in. Their gunmen are little different from any other gunman wanted by authority and seeking shelter among his tribe.
“There are few believers [jihadis] who live in the mountains,” an old man in Hateem told me, “but we haven’t seen them do anything wrong here. We don’t care if they have killed someone in America; here in Shabwa they haven’t committed a crime and they should be respected like any other man.”