Former bin Laden bodyguard is among ex-guerrillas in Yemen
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
SANAA, YEMEN -- When he served in the Afghan mountains as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri said, he was known as "The Killer." Today, Bahri is a business consultant in Yemen who favors Western-style pinstriped shirts, crisp slacks and black loafers. But his ideas are still radical: Ask him whether jihadists should kill Americans on U.S. soil and he replies without hesitation, "America is a legitimate target."
The arc of Bahri's life helps to explain why Yemen was an attractive place for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who allegedly tried to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, to be indoctrinated into the Islamist world of jihad. Thousands like Bahri, who have returned from wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Muslim lands, are disengaged from the fight against the West, yet express sympathy for al-Qaeda's violent core philosophies.
As the United States steps up its engagement here, it faces the delicate task of fighting terrorism without alienating Yemen's highly tribal and religiously conservative society. Like Pakistan and Afghanistan, Yemen has abundant weapons and men experienced in guerrilla warfare who resent U.S. policies and have tribal, social and inspirational ties to al-Qaeda. Many fear that such men could become perfect recruits, especially if anti-American sentiments grow or Yemen plunges deeper into chaos.
"These people are already angry and many are unemployed," said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. "The only option they will have if fighting starts is to join al-Qaeda. Where else will they go?"
He added that Yemen is a place where "you cannot prevent contacts between young impressionable men and their jihadist heroes."
Some of al-Qaeda's best-known figures, many with strong connections to bin Laden, live in this Middle Eastern nation led by a weak government and beset by multiple emergencies, from civil war to soaring poverty and dwindling oil reserves.
Abdul Majid al-Zindani, bin Laden's former spiritual adviser, whom the United States has classified as a terrorist, is the most powerful religious figure here today. Senior Yemeni officials both fear him and seek his support. Nasser al-Wuhayshi -- bin Laden's former personal secretary -- is the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials believe trained Abdulmutallab and equipped him with chemical explosives.
U.S. and Yemeni investigators are also looking into a possible relationship between Abdulmutallab and Anwar al-Aulaqi, the extremist Yemeni American cleric who U.S. and Yemeni officials allege is one of the emerging spiritual leaders in al-Qaeda.
Aulaqi has also been linked to the man charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., on Nov. 5.
In an interview in a sunny room filled with computers at a business conference where he was working, Bahri, 37, said he has kept a relatively low profile in Yemen since 2002, when he was released from prison.
He said Yemeni authorities held him for nearly two years without charge.
He said he is no longer an al-Qaeda member and has no desire to return to a life of jihad. But he said he still admires bin Laden and his cause.