The intrepid, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, meets Jemajem, young militant leader who belongs to the Hirak group of activists, who have been calling for south Yemen to be allowed to secede from the north for half a decade.
In an old house in Aden, Jemajem gathered a dozen of his followers. His attire, like his politics, was a mix of every militant and revolutionary trend that has swept through the Middle East. The black shirt; black combat trousers and black keffiyeh wrapped around his head is a nod to the Shia fighters of Hezbollah, while his long unkempt beard and the black hair falling to his shoulder is a salute to the jihadis of south Yemen.
“The youth is agitated, militant and demands freedom,” Jemajem told them, “and the only way to get freedom is by grabbing it with your hand. America won’t give us freedom – we have to fight for it.”
Many years before the Arab spring, he and hundreds of other activists in south Yemen started a peaceful movement demanding freedom, the end of Saleh’s autocratic rule and the northern exploitation of the south. The state responded with oppression.
In less than half a decade, Jemajem was jailed six times, beaten up, tortured – including being hanged from the ceiling of his cell for days – and had his hair and beard shaved with a knife. At the end of this experience, he had been transformed from a peaceful demonstrator into a militant leader calling for armed struggle.
The peaceful demonstrators evolved into a separatist movement, Hirak, demanding the “independence” and “restoration of the state of South Yemen”. But Hirak followed the trajectory of other Arab uprisings: a mass popular movement without real leaders degenerated into an array of supreme salvation councils and revolutionary committees, each claiming to be the real representative of the people while bickering over personal slights and antagonisms.
“I tell you my brothers, you have to revolt against not only the oppression of the north but also against those who claim to be our leaders,” Jemajem told his followers. “The Arab world is deposing its dictators and you are bringing your own. These people are nothing but stuffed mummies.”
It was frustration at the Hirak leaders’ ineffectiveness that led the group to Tehran. “We went to Iran with a sense of shame,” said a woman activist, “because all doors were closed in our faces and only the Iranians offered to help.”
What did they say to the Iranians in the end? “We said no,” said Jemajem. The Iranians attached a key condition: that the supply of guns would not be controlled by Hirak but by the Houthi rebels in the north – Shia insurgents who have been fighting the central government for almost a decade and are widely believed to be backed by Iran.
“They told us the Houthis would deliver the weapons and the money,” said Jemajem. “We are trying to liberate our country from the northerners – I am not going to be under the control of another northerner.
“We realised then that the Iranians want us to be pawns,” he said. “I refused to take their money.”
On his return from Tehran, Jemajem turned to the jihadis. He spent a few weeks living with them in the nascent Islamic emirate based in the southern Yemeni city of Ja’ar. Although at heart a secular leftist, the “Guevara of the south” was impressed by the Islamists’ strength.