Field Notes

Finding a Terror Suspect in Yemen

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 16, 2008; 2:55 PM

SANAA, Yemen -- To find Jabar Elbaneh, the terrorist suspect with a $5 million bounty on his head, first I had to navigate a room packed with armed Yemeni drug addicts.

I had been hoping that I could get the al-Qaeda operative to talk by going through his lawyer, Abdulaziz al-Samawi. After a phone inquiry, the attorney agreed to receive me in his office last month in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. I found his downtown address and made my way up the ramshackle back staircase.

Samawi offered a warm greeting, motioned for me to remove my shoes and pointed the way into his conference room. Inside, there was no table, no chairs. Just a perimeter of floor cushions occupied by two dozen Yemeni men, busily chewing armloads of fresh green leaves and twigs.

It was time for a khat session, Samawi explained. Khat is a narcotic plant that Yemenis love to chew in immense quantities for its mood-changing stimulants (It is banned in the United States). Every day after lunch, Yemenis drop what they're doing, stuff a fistful of khat leaves in their cheek and chomp away.

Several people in the room were kind enough to offer a share of their personal stashes of khat. Not wanting to offend, I accepted and put several pinches between my cheek and gum. I felt like I was eating a ficus tree. My technique must have been poor, since no buzz was forthcoming, just a mouthful of bitter green mush.

After several minutes of shooting the bull -- the primary purpose of a Yemeni khat session -- Samawi announced that he would entertain my questions. But first he had a question of his own: Was I an American spy?

I stopped chewing and started to laugh, but noticed that everyone in the room was watching me intently. Most of the Yemenis were wearing their traditional dress, which includes a large curved dagger -- known as a jambiyya -- strapped around their waists. So I turned serious and assured him that no, I was most certainly not a spy. I was simply here to report on an important story for our readers.

Then I made my pitch: would it be possible to arrange an interview with Elbaneh, the U.S.-Yemeni citizen who was openly walking the streets in Sanaa despite the $5 million reward for his capture? The lawyer was noncommittal. But he said he'd try to help.

He did share a tip. Elbaneh was scheduled to appear in court the next day. Maybe I could run into him there.

I showed up early the next morning at the state security court, presented my press credentials and was admitted to the cramped courtroom. Local journalists confirmed that Elbaneh was supposed to show up for a hearing in an ongoing trial of al-Qaeda suspects (Yemeni officials had agreed to allow him to remain free in exchange for his cooperation).

A few minutes before the hearing began, I was summoned into the office of the general prosecutor. The hearing was open to the public, he said, but foreign journalists were an exception and I would have to leave. He didn't give a good reason. But it was clear he didn't want an American reporter to see Elbaneh, whose freedom had become a diplomatic sore point between Sanaa and Washington. I protested in a huff, but was ordered out by a plainclothes Yemeni intelligence agent.

As I walked out of the building, now in a foul mood, I noticed an overweight 41-year-old who looked familiar. It was Elbaneh, the five-million-dollar man, a little late for his court date. He strode past several police officers and straight toward me.

I whipped out my camera and started clicking. I'm not a practiced paparazzi, but I had inadvertently blocked his way into the courthouse's side entrance. He tried to brush past me and our feet got tangled up.

"Sorry," I said reflexively. He raised his head, gave a quizzical look, and kept going without a word.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company