Peter Oborne

Did Yemen’s intelligence service collude with Al Qaeda?

Did Yemen's intelligence service collude with Al Qaeda?
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Al Qaeda terrorists have never had good press. For sound reasons they are always represented as evil, nihilistic, faceless murderers. There are certain interesting signs this is starting to change. This is happening in part because the emergence of Isis has shown that there is something worse than Al Qaeda. It is in part because the West has joined forces with Al Qaeda in some of its wars. The Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra, for instance, seems to have become a western ally in the war against Assad. Tonight Al Jazeera presents an intriguing portrait of an Al Qaeda terrorist.

The documentary Al Qaeda Informant tells the story of the life of Hani Mujahid, a Yemeni citizen who joined Al Qaeda as a foot soldier in the late 1990s. Driven partly by idealistic reasons (he says that he agreed with Osama Bin Laden’s message of global jihad, as well as his support for Palestine), Mujahid travelled to Afghanistan to fight for Osama Bin Laden. He was sent for training at the Al Farouk and Aynak camps where he became an explosives expert, losing his thumb in what he describes as a training accident.  After the fall of the Taliban, Mujahid, alongside many other Al Qaeda fighters, fled to the tribal areas of Pakistan. From here, he continued the fight against the United States until he was picked up by the Pakistani authorities and arrested in 2004. He seems to have had a hard time in the hands of both the ISI and the CIA. 

This brings us to the first obscurity of Hani’s career. One would expect someone of his profile to have ended up in Guantanamo Bay. However Hani was put on a flight back to Yemen where he was again arrested and spent two years in prison. Soon after his release two years later he says he was persuaded by his uncle, a colonel in the Political Security Organisation in Ta’iz Province, to work for the state intelligence. He promptly re-established his links with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of Al Qaeda’s most active units.

Hani soon established himself as ‘the Al Qaeda infiltrator for the security agencies.’ This was perilous work. On one occasion in 2007 he says he was told at the last minute that Al Qaeda was planning to bomb a group of tourists. He detached himself from his fellow terrorists and went off on his own, ostensibly, to pray. He then rang his uncle and told him to inform the security forces of the planned attack.

On another occasion just over a year later, he claims that he warned Yemeni intelligence of a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy. At the time the Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, Colonel Ammar Saleh was Deputy Director of Yemen’s National Security Bureau. Despite tipping off the security services three months before, one week before and three days before, the assault took place on 17 September 2008, and 19 people died, with many more injured.

This brings us to the second mystery of Hani’s career. He says that he repeatedly warned Yemeni intelligence of Al Qaeda attacks, but that they never acted on his warnings. After a time he became convinced that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government was working hand in glove with Al Qaeda.

He even alleges that Colonel Ammar gave him money destined for Al Qaeda ahead of the attack on the U.S. Embassy. ‘As for the explosives, this was the support from Ammar Muhammad Abdallah Saleh.’ 

‘After we finished chewing qat, it was about 5pm, Ammar Muhammad Abdallah Saleh gave me a sum of money.’ It was allegedly for a local sheikh who would then give it to Al Qaeda’s leaders.

Hani then tried to get in contact with the CIA directly. He rang the American embassy to set up a meeting, and they agreed a rendezvous in a hotel. But as he walked towards the meeting place he was picked up by a group of men, which he alleges were Yemeni security officers, bundled into a minibus, blindfolded and thrown into jail. When he finally did meet the US intelligence he says he was under the direct supervision of Colonel Ammar Saleh, the president’s nephew and then deputy at the National Security Bureau. In the presence of Colonel Ammar, he didn’t feel he could make the allegations.

Shortly after that episode came the Arab Spring. The Saleh government fell and Hani’s situation is now unclear. He tells Al Jazeera that he is appalled by the activities of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular. He says that Osama Bin Laden would never have sanctioned Al Qaeda’s Yemeni attacks: 'Sheikh Osama Bin Laden did not see at all (the need for) any jihadi action in Yemen. He had conviction of that. He believed that the youth of Yemen and the people of Yemen are people of (logistical) support or his jihadi work in the countries of the rest of the world. But for Yemen he did not believe in this at all.’

Hani seems to feel betrayed, not just by Al Qaeda, but also by the Yemeni government and perhaps the CIA. He is effectively saying that he presented himself to Al Jazeera because he has run out of options. His life must be in danger and I guess that his story is quite typical of many young men and women who set of to join Al Qaeda over fifteen years ago.

There are however a number of mysteries in Hani's story. How did he come to return to Yemen on a commercial flight? What was the exact nature of his link with Al Qaeda when he came out of jail in 2006? He denies any role in creating bombs yet he is an explosives expert. It seems unlikely that local Al Qaeda bosses would have sought out Hani simply for the pleasures of his company. Who does Hani owe his loyalty to now? Has somebody sent him to Al Jazeera in an attempt to damage Saleh who is still a powerful subversive presence in the Yemeni civil war?

If Hani’s story is to be believed, there are grave questions to be answered by Western intelligence agencies. CIA director, John Brennan devoted serious time and resources to bolstering Saleh. Just last year President Obama of the US boasted of the success of the US counter-terrorism operations in Yemen: ‘This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.' Hani's claims that the Saleh government was in bed with Al Qaeda and may have even aided the attack on the US embassy in September 2008 do need to be investigated.

These claims raise difficult questions about counter-terrorism policy. But for me the chief interest of this important and unusual film was Hani himself. Al Jazeera have put a human face on a long-term Al Qaeda terrorist. Al Qaeda Informant is a thought provoking film which illustrates the vulnerability, the moral contradictions and the loneliness of an Al Qaeda terrorist.