NEAL CONAN, HOST:
We don't see a lot of interviews with officials of al-Qaida. Tonight on "Frontline" we hear what al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has to say for itself and see how it administers cities under its control. The setting is Yemen, deeply divided after Arab Spring uprisings and home to what U.S. officials call al-Qaida's most dangerous offshoot: AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen remains a focal point in the U.S. war on terror and a regular target of U.S. drone strikes. Tonight's "Frontline" report features British journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who went into al-Qaida-controlled Yemen to meet with a fighter and political officer who called himself Fouad.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AL-QAIDA IN YEMEN")
FOUAD: (Through translator) We're at war with America and its allies. Just like Bush once said, if you're not with us, you're against us.
CONAN: The "Frontline" documentary "Al-Qaida in Yemen" begins to air on PBS stations around the country tonight. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad joins us from a studio at the BBC in London. Nice to have you with us today.
GHAITH ABDUIL-AHAD: (Unintelligible)
CONAN: And at one point in this story, you're blindfolded by members of a group that, as you note, is known for abducting and even beheading Western journalists. This must have been, well, a pretty scary moment.
ABDUIL-AHAD: Yeah. It was very sketchy to be blindfolded willingly by those guys.
CONAN: Why did you do it?
ABDUIL-AHAD: Well, you know, they've been claiming that they had, you know, they've captured 72 government soldiers and, you know, you never know, you know, the reality of these things. I really wanted to see if they actually have captured those guys. Was it true? You know, the military attack, their attack was, you know, pretty stunning. They attacked a military camp. They killed 185 soldiers, captured 72. So if I had, you know, if I could confirm, actually, they had captured those soldiers, you know, I could give some credibility to what they were saying.
CONAN: And you did in fact confirm that - I didn't see 72 in that picture but a large number.
ABDUIL-AHAD: Yes. They kind of - they took us from, you know, to six different cells. Each cell had like 12, 15 guys.
CONAN: This was in a town called Jaar, which is under control of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. We think of them as a sort of hit-and-run group. But here, as in, I guess, Afghanistan in the old days and maybe parts of Pakistan today, this is a town they control.
ABDUIL-AHAD: Yes, this is kind of really, you know, it's really amazing. I've met jihadis in different places. I've met them in Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia. I've never been to a town, not even Fallujah when I visited Fallujah in 2004, a town run by the jihadis, by al-Qaida, where they claim they to a have municipal system, they provide electricity, water. Al-Qaida now, kind of post, you know, the killing of Osama bin Laden, post the upspring, they were very keen to show a different image, to show themselves as, you know, let's call them al-Qaida 2.1, al-Qaida that's trying to put traits of - as avant garde the revolutionaries in the Middle East. So they've learned from their mistakes in Iraq.
They've learned from the letters of Osama bin Laden. And they were very keen to show me, show the world, a different image of al-Qaida. Yet when you talk to them, as you listen to Fouad talking, you know, it's a very, very new presentation, kind of - the rhetoric is kind of all about system, about institutions, about governments, yet it carries the same old, you know, delusional message.
CONAN: Yet this is a place, as you say, where they are in control, their model, as it were, for what an Islamic state might be like.
ABDUIL-AHAD: Yes. And I think, you know, it's - I mean, I don't know. It's far more critical, let's say, I don't know if dangerous is the right word, but it's far more different, you know, than the situation in Afghanistan or Iraq. Before al-Qaida, we always saw them kind of living in caves, in the mountains, underground. Now, when they kind of run a town, when they run a society, they're presenting their message.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: They, you know, they have a bigger chance of, you know, acquiring more recruits, of convincing more people, of attracting more young men. Remember, this - we are talking Yemen. This is south of Yemen where every single person hates the government, where everyone, you know, not really, you know, admiring the United States. So in that part of the world, those guys have a bigger chance of recruiting more people by running a city, a town.
CONAN: There is also another town you visit, which is - as scary as Jaar was, this town is even scarier. This is where you go to meet, you hope, a senior commander.
ABDUL-AHAD: Yes, Azan is kind of different. Jaar is their - kind of their, you know, utopian city, their modular city. They kind of put it in the front, on the front lines. Azan is deep in the dessert. It's surrounded by the mountains. These are the Awalik mountains. These are inhabited by the Awalik tribe, where, you know, we know that Awlaki comes from. Awlaki's son was killed in that town, actually. And this is far more isolated. This is their kind of rear base, and there, you know, when you go into the town, the soldiers, the fighters are more serious. We saw foreigners there. We saw an Afghan. We saw Somalis. So down there it's kind of far more, you know, higher ranking officials obviously there.
CONAN: You said a different character of al-Qaida soldier you saw there.
ABDUL-AHAD: Yes. You know, one of the judges I talked to there in Azan, he was telling me this. He was telling me like I have - we've learned from our mistakes in Iraq. We should have a very critical, you know, relationship with the tribes. We don't want to repeat our mistakes in Iraq. So basically you have guys who have studied their, you know, the progress of the past 10 years. They have seen what happened to them in Iraq. They have seen what happened to them in different parts of the world. They've seen the, you know, the Arab Spring.
Basically I was personally, before going to Yemen, I thought this is the end of al-Qaida. After the killing of bin Laden, after the Arab Spring, the Arab youth kind of like started tasting democracy. Why would you ever kind of want to have al-Qaida running your affairs? But here you are, you have al-Qaida regenerating itself. The jihadis, you know, the same ideology in a different image, in a different presentation, basically, and trying to represent the Arab world, the Arab uprising of the world, as an, you know, something that they have started.
CONAN: You mentioned al-Awlaki. This is Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who became, at least we're told, the operational head of AQAP, the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, killed by a drone strike. His son, as you also mentioned, killed by a drone strike. In fact, those are quite common in Yemen these days. Did you see anything? Were you looking in the sky? Were you worried that your vehicle would be hit?
ABDUL-AHAD: You know, I was in Shabwah in the same region in 2010. And from 2010, you can hear the drones in the skies. I mean, you know, I've become accustomed to their humming from Iraq, from Somalia, from Afghanistan. So when you go to Yemen and you hear this sound and you kind of, like you cringe - are they going to repeat the same policies that, you know, they've had in Pakistan and Afghanistan in Yemen? And, basically, this is what's happening, and this is very dangerous, you know.
Those guys - the jihadis in the south of Yemen, with every drone strike they get more credibility. They can point to themselves and say, look, we are the enemies of America. I mean, you've heard Fouad talking. He's, you know, no one cares basically in south of Yemen about America. No one really kind of wants to go attack America. But when those guys point to themselves at these, you know, the neo-crusaders, those are the jihadis, you know, America's coming all the way to fight us here - that gives them credibility.
And I do worry that with more and more drone attacks, I mean, when I was there in 2010, there were like three, four drone attacks per year. Now we're talking about, you know, one every week or every couple of weeks. So there is definitely an escalation in the amount of attacks. And that, what - you know, my fear is it would work as a recruiting tool for the jihadis.
CONAN: There is yet a third town you visit. And this, you spoke about the tribes who were so crucial in turning the situation around in Iraq, in the western part of Iraq. These are, of course, different tribes, it's a different part of the world. Nevertheless, the tribal structure is very important. And this was a town where the tribesmen had risen up and driven al-Qaida out of town.
ABDUL-AHAD: Exactly. It's a town called Loder. Loder was controlled by al-Qaida up until a year ago, and then the people of the town kicked al-Qaida out. And it's - we've seen this. We've seen this in different in places. We've seen it in Somalia. We've seen it in Iraq. It's only when the local population turns against al-Qaida. This is the ultimate defeat of al-Qaida. So here you have those kind of like God's warriors. They're kind of the holy warriors defeated by their own people. They were not defeated by the drones. You know, Awlaki was killed yet they continued to, you know, plot. They had more fighters on the ground. Actually, with the more drone attacks, they have controlled more towns.
But when the people of the town, when the tribesmen of Loder turned against al-Qaida, that was their ultimate defeat. They were shattered. They tried for two weeks to enter that town and they couldn't. And I visited that town. I saw the fighters. I mean, a bunch of tribesmen, leftists, seculars, tribesmen, some of them are, you know, even some are jihadis fighting with Kalashnikovs, old hunting rifles, yet they managed to stop the al-Qaida. So we have a motto here. We have - you know, talk to the locals. I mean, the south of Yemen, you know, there is a huge separatist movement in south of Yemen, and they hate al-Qaida. All what you need to do is talk to the separatists, and they will, you know, solve al-Qaida problem instead of using the drones.
CONAN: Email question from Greg in Atlanta. What was it about Ghaith Abdul-Ahad that inspired the Yemen al-Qaida members to give him such access? Was it cultural, i.e., the combination of his looks, dress, Arabic and/or Muslim credentials?
ABDUL-AHAD: You know, there is no religion kind of involved in this thing. Cultural, probably. I do speak Arabic. But, you know, I don't think this is a specific thing. We have many American, British journalists, very, very brave journalists who manage to talk to the Taliban, to al-Qaida in Pakistan and Iraq. So it's not, you know, I, you know, it does - tickles me to say, oh, it's cultural, the way he looks, but the reality is not. The reality, you know, if you have the right contacts, if you speak the language, if you persist, you know, you can get to those guys. And again, you know, many, many brave American journalists have done the same thing.
CONAN: You paint a picture of the Yemeni military that, at least on your portrait of it, looks hopeless. You end the piece by suggesting that America is being defended by these 15-year-old tribesmen in towns who are fighting against al-Qaida, not for America in any way.
ABDUL-AHAD: Neal, I mean, like the worst thing is the Yemeni army. It's really pathetic. I mean here you have Americans giving, you know, the anti-terror corps, these kind of elite of the Yemeni forces, so much money, millions of dollars in the past four, five years. What have they done? Actually, al-Qaida moved from being three Saudi fugitives hiding in the mountains of Shabwa, you know, into a force that controls many towns, and this is while the Americans have been giving all these, you know, money and equipment to the Yemeni army.
When you see the tribesmen stop, you know, pushing al-Qaida, defeating al-Qaida, why don't the Americans talk to the tribesmen? Why don't the world talk to the tribesmen, to the locals off the south of Yemen? The Yemeni forces is divided at the moment. It's corrupt at, you know, at its best. Now it's divided. The Yemeni forces, you know, the president is trying to unify them, but you know, basically you have the pro-Saleh, former president, then, you know, the pro-opposition forces. The soldiers themselves are underpaid, are, you know, hungry, starving. They don't have bullets.
One of the al-Qaida soldiers I met, you know, when I went to see the, you know, the detainees - the detained soldiers, was telling me those soldiers are very poor. They each have only 30 bullets. We have 10 magazines, 30 bullets each. The al-Qaida soldiers are far better equipped and armed than the soldiers.
CONAN: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, thanks very much for your time today.
ABDUL-AHAD: Neal, thanks.
CONAN: "Al-Qaeda in Yemen" premieres tonight on "Frontline" on PBS stations around the country. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is also a reporter for the Guardian and joined us from the studios of the BBC in London. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.