Osama bin Laden wrote before he died that Yemen was the place where al-Qaeda had its best chance of establishing its own state — if it acted carefully and avoided alienating the local population. I suspect that bin Laden, who was something of a TV news junkie, would be encouraged and also worried by a new PBS documentary from inside the terror group’s Yemeni operations.
The unusual documentary, “Al Qaeda in Yemen,” airs Tuesday night on PBS’s “Frontline.” It is reported by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi-born journalist for the Guardian newspaper and one brave dude: As he says at the beginning of the show, “This is an organization known for kidnapping journalists, detaining them for a long time, sometimes beheading them.” So kudos to Abdul-Ahad and “Frontline” for taking viewers on a gutsy trip inside al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known.
What struck me, as I watched a preview of the show, was that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is adopting some of the harsh tactics that bin Laden warned his affiliates against, since they alienated other Muslims. The documentary includes examples of these brutal methods, and also some evidence that they are indeed turning off the very people that al-Qaeda needs as allies.
In three locations, Abdul-Ahad found examples of aggressive tactics that have helped al-Qaeda gain territory in Yemen but that also seem to be upsetting local tribesmen. To me, these vignettes seemed almost a replay of al-Qaeda’s cycle in western Iraq, where it proclaimed an emirate but burned so hot that it ended up triggering a tribal revolt:
— In Jaar, a southwestern town that al-Qaeda captured after a fierce battle with the Yemeni military, the group has reduced the crime rate by cutting off the hands of three thieves. Abdul-Ahad reports from one dusty street: “It’s almost a surreal scene in this part of town: All the shops are empty and open, no people inside, yet no one stealing. . . . I don’t know if it says much about the honesty of the town or the fear.”
Al-Qaeda’s use of horrifying punishments includes even crucifixion, the penalty for someone accused of spying. The terror group posted a grisly video of the man hanging on a makeshift cross. When Abdul-Ahad asked one Yemeni townsman about the crucifixion, he responded: “What kind of people do this?”
— In Azzan, the mountain stronghold in southern Yemen where Anwar al-Awlaki was killed last year in a drone attack, Abdul-Ahad finds an al-Qaeda official who seems to understand the danger of alienating the local tribes. The reporter explains: “They are very keen not to go into the same confrontations they had in Iraq, when the tribes turned against al-Qaeda and pushed them out of the towns and cities.”
But even in this stronghold, Abdul-Ahad finds, “It’s more sinister than Jaar. The town is more desolate, more empty, heavily guarded. They [are] very, very paranoid.” And you can understand why: A local official indicates that if Abdul-Ahad comes back to Azzan, he can interview a senior leader named Fahd al-Quso, who helped plot the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. On May 6, al-Quso was killed in a drone attack.
— In the southern town of Lawder, the tribes are rebelling against al-Qaeda in precisely the way bin Laden feared. Abdul-Ahad asks a local tribesman about the fighting, and he responds: “We destroyed them, okay. We blew them away! . . . We kicked the al-Qaeda dogs of hell out of Lawder.”
The PBS reporter concludes: “If the millions of tribesmen decide collectively one day that they would like to kick out al-Qaeda, it will just disappear.”
Al-Qaeda’s defeat in Yemen is hardly assured. The government there is fragile, and it is battling al-Qaeda for control of key areas of the south.
Bin Laden understood that, in places like Yemen, al-Qaeda can be its own worst enemy. Yet despite repeated warnings to his lieutenants, he was never able to stop the self-destructive behavior. If this fascinating documentary is accurate, the mistakes continue.