In this extraordinary story, award-winning Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Director Safa Al Ahmad risk their lives to get inside Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
This film investigates how Al Qaeda was able to capture Yemeni towns and cities from right under the noses of the United States and the Sana’a administration.
"For the first time in my experience, we see Al Qaeda actually trying to hold territory and this is a departure from anything that we had seen before in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq ."
U.S. Ambassador to Yemen speaking to Clover Films
During a turbulent year which has seen mass demonstrations and the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, Al Qaeda departed from the hit-and-run tactics fostered under Osama bin Laden and succeeded in capturing large swathes of land across the south of the country. It was the first time Al Qaeda had sought to gain and hold territory and reporter Ghaith discovered how they took control of towns and cities in an attempt to establish their own State.
"Democracy has failed in the Arab world," says Fouad, an Al Qaeda soldier and administrator. "It failed in Tunis and in Egypt and Libya. It failed in Yemen. The people agree.”
They set out to win the hearts and minds of the population, rather than ruling by gunpoint. In Jaar, with its population of over 100,000, the Al Qaeda administration abolished taxes, provided free water and electricity and installed sewage pipes. Their trucks distributed water to villages and Bedouin settlements. People living in the desert on the outskirts of the town said the jihadis had connected their village to the electricity grid for the first time in their lives.
100 miles east of Jaar is Azzan, a market town in Shabwa province. The city's old police station had been converted into a Sharia court. Unlike Jaar, under Al Qaeda Azzan became a frightening citadel, with local people often too scared to come out on the streets. Our team is allowed access to the town under strict supervision and, at times, fears they may never be allowed to leave.
It would take 25,000 Yemeni troops, supported by jets and drones, to push Al Qaeda out of the towns and back into the surrounding mountainside. But was this a terrible mistake? As our film shows, the terrorists immediately began a new suicide bombing campaign, arguably making them more dangerous than ever before.
Reporter: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Director: Safa Al Ahmad
Produced by Jamie Doran
In association with:
Images © Ghaith Abdul-Ahad