We knew it was taking too long.
We were at the main checkpoint on the outskirts of Aden, in southern Yemen. Ahead of us was the road to Jaar. Behind us was one car, then another, and then another.
We – my translator and I along with three tribal escorts – were waiting for clearance to pass. But there were three security forces at the checkpoint – and that meant three different phone calls to three different influential people to give us the green light.
Each minute of waiting felt like an hour.
Abdul Latif al-Sayid, the tribal militia commander I was to interview in a village on the outskirts of Jaar, had informed only his most trusted lieutenants of my impending arrival. He didn’t want to take any chances. Informants for al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were everywhere, including within his militia. An American journalist would be a target, he told me.
After more than an hour, we finally got all three permissions. By then, it was too late. Too many cars had passed through. Too many people had seen our black sports utility vehicle at the checkpoint. It was too risky. So we turned back to switch cars.
The next morning, we hopped into a white minivan and made our way through the checkpoint. We drove through a tableau of destroyed buildings and shattered houses, the grisly evidence of a summer of fighting. A U.S.-backed offensive drove out the Islamist militants, who had ruled swaths of southern Yemen for more than a year, from towns in Abyan Province, including Jaar and the provincial capital Zinjibar and Jaar, their main stronghold.
But our journey highlighted how much of a threat the extremists remain in southern Yemen. Tribal fighters, under Sayid’s command, stood guard at the entrances to towns, clutching rusting Kalashnikov rifles, their cheeks bulging with khat, the leafy narcotic chewed by most Yemeni men.
Watch: This video purportedly a mass execution in Jaar conducted by members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Some viewers may find this video too graphic.
As we entered Jaar, two tribal fighters on a motorcycle secretly followed us, in case we got ambushed, I would learn later.
We passed Sayid’s family house where scores were killed last month when a militant sneaked in with a bomb during a funeral service. The dead included Sayid’s two brothers, but Sayid managed to escape with minor injuries and went into hiding.
Half-hour later, we were in Batais, a village about 10 miles outside Jaar. But when we arrived, we were informed that Sayid would meet us elsewhere. There were suspected AQAP informants around that day in the village, I was told. Or perhaps Sayid was just being extra cautious.
So, guided by one of Sayid’s lieutenants, we drove another half hour, deep into the mountains of Abyan until we reached an empty cement factory.
On the other side of a gate, Sayid waited with his bodyguards. His hands were as calloused as his smile was soft. He sat down on the ground, his cheeks filled with khat, for the interview. He positioned his Kalashnikov rifle by his side. His bodyguards were less than a yard away, their hands on their rifles.
As darkness came, it was time to leave. We drove back to Aden.
The next morning, we returned to Jaar – in a different car. We spent the day there, interviewing residents inside houses. We then drove around the streets. I jumped out and took photos. We stopped at a soccer field where the militants used to hold public amputations and executions.
As I snapped away with my camera, some residents stared and pointed at me.
It was time to leave Jaar.
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