A Frontline Exclusive
In recent years, the most significant terrorist plots against the United States have emanated from Yemen. This little known country on the Arabian Peninsula has become the hottest front in the war against al Qaeda. Last week, a suicide bomber killed about 100 soldiers in the country's capital, Sana. Earlier this month, news broke of a foiled plot by al Qaeda in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reporting for FRONTLINE, recently traveled to Yemen's radical heartland to investigate this threat. A portion of his report, Al Qaeda in Yemen —which airs tonight on PBS (check local listings) and online at pbs.org/frontline—is embedded above.
In dangerous areas of southern Yemen where few journalists have traveled, Ghaith found members of al Qaeda, describing themselves as the group Ansar al-Sharia, in control of cities and towns and winning both support and recruits among some in the local population by administering scarce resources.
In the above video, Ghaith visits Jaar, which al Qaeda captured a year ago without resistance from the Yemeni Army—which receives arms, training and intelligence from the United States. An al Qaeda spokesman, Fouad, took Ghaith on a tour of the large town and explained the way they are implementing Sharia, Islamic law. On the desolate streets, Ghaith encountered fighters he believed to be from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
"We are at war with America and its allies," Fouad told Ghaith. And Ansar al-Sharia has grand ambitions: the creation of its own state.
"For the first time in my experience, we see al Qaeda actually trying to hold territory, and this is a departure from anything that we had seen before," U.S. ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein told FRONTLINE. "The fact of the matter is that they continue to try to find ways to attack not only here in Yemen, but in the United States, in the neighborhood against Saudi Arabia, against Western Europe and the U.K. So they have global aspirations, and we consider that they still present a very significant challenge."
President Obama has said that the United States is "very concerned" about al Qaeda's operations in Yemen. American drones regularly target the group and the administration has, in President Obama's words, "established a strong counterterrorism partnership with the Yemeni government."
But Osama bin Laden warned al Qaeda in Yemen that the main threat to their survival was not U.S. drone attacks, not the Yemeni army, but antagonizing Yemen's tribes.
In the rest of Al Qaeda in Yemen, Ghaith explores the tension between al Qaeda's brutal tactics and its efforts not to alienate the Yemeni populace. Ghait travels to the town of Lawdar, where he discovers that al Qaeda had been driven from power by local residents after assassinating a tribal leader.