Screen shots from PBS FRONTLINE's "Al Qaeda in Yemen" - Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (left), Al Qaeda fighter (right)

A recent edition of the PBS program “FRONTLINE” examined how Al Qaeda has taken over cities and rugged mountain areas of Yemen and taken advantage of civil unrest in the country brought about by the Yemen uprising that began the spring of last year. The edition followed journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as he courageously traveled to meet with members of Ansar al-Sharia, a group that is believed to be composed of members affiliated with Al Qaeda.

First off, whether one thinks the program was produced to serve the “war on terror” agenda of the United States or not, Abdul-Ahad deserves to be commended for being bold enough to meet with members of Al Qaeda. As he points out in the opening, the Yemen government does not typically let journalists meet with al Qaeda. The Yemen government, especially now under President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, is a client regime of the United States. Journalists could easily be targeted for interviewing members of al Qaeda. For example, Abdulelah Haider Shaye interviewed members of Al Qaeda and covered the sites of drone attacks. He is a Yemeni journalist, who is currently in jail because former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ordered by President Barack Obama to not pardon him. And, in addition to the possibility of being targeted by the US or Yemen government, as Abdul-Ahad mentions, Al Qaeda is an organization known for kidnapping journalists, detaining them for long hours and sometimes beheading them. (In fact, Abdul-Ahad has been detained as a journalist before. He was held in detention in Libya in May 2011.)

Abdul-Ahad travels to Ja’ar — a city that was taken over by Al Qaeda without resistance by the Yemen military, despite the fact that the US was providing arms, training and intelligence. He describes seeing the flag of Al Qaeda: “It’s a very sinister thing. It’s a black flag inscribed with the words “No God but one God,” and then the seal of the prophet. It has an impact on you. It’s very scary.” He meets with his contact, ”a fighter and political officer who calls himself Fouad” and is “a member of Ansar al Sharia.”

In the interview, Fouad states, “We are at war with America and its allies. Just like Bush once said: either you’re with us or against us.” He derides the Yemeni military as he talks about a recent drone attack: “They talk about the Air Force. They’re too embarrassed to say it’s actually the American drones.” He also claims that the Yemen government bombs “people’s homes to prove to Washington they are truly fighting terrorism, but they have failed” and that attacks from the US and Yemen government have made the local people fear for their lives.

A gripping sequence then unfolds as Abdul-Ahad asks to see 73 Yemeni soldiers that were captured. He convinces members of Al Qaeda to take him to see them and is blindfolded and driven fifty minutes away to a compound where aggressive-looking soldiers stand guard. He meets with the soldiers. They tell him that Al Qaeda was better armed and plead for a prisoner exchange.

Abdul-Ahad returns to Ja’ar. He highlights the control Al Qaeda wields over the city because many of the people live in fear. Al Qaeda chopped off the hands of three thieves.

It is time for evening prayer. “So what happens if someone doesn’t want to pray?” asks Abdul-Ahad. “Well, we’ll go to them and convince them to pray,” Fouad answers. If they don’t pray, Al Qaeda will lock them up.

As night falls, Abdul-Ahad refuses to stay in Ja’ar. He leaves for Aden, a city that has been “crippled by chaos.” The narrator says, “Ther are more than 100,000 refugees from the fighting between al Qaeda and the government.” Abdul-Ahad adds they have fled the “shelling of the army, the aerial bombardment, drones and Yemeni army fighter jets.”

The people in Aden are still marching and demonstrating, even though Saleh is no longer president. They want independence for southern Yemen. Soldiers fire live bullets into protests on a regular basis. These are citizens whom President Obama does not want Americans to provide material support.

Abdul-Ahad travels to Azzan, a place that is reportedly more dangerous than Ja’ar. It is heavily guarded by Al Qaeda fighters and a fortress where no one is allowed to be filmed and cell phones are not even allowed. He does, however, manage to film the site where Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the sixteen year-old son of US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, was killed.

While at a checkpoint, he encounters people working at a booth who distribute media propaganda for Al Qaeda. They hand out DVDs on the survivors of drone strikes. It is a “badge of honor” for Al Qaeda fighters to survive drone attacks.

In the final minutes, it is explained how critical tribes are to the future of Yemen. Abdul-Ahad reports from Lawder, where Al Qaeda was recently driven out. “If the millions of tribesmen decide collectively one day that they would like to kick out al Qaeda, it will just disappear,” he states. One can’t help but wonder if the tribesmen could also choose to not fight Al Qaeda if too many people from their tribes become victims of US drone strikes.


The documentary does not do too much to challenge the notion that the US should be involved in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. The fine reporting of Ghaith Abdul-Ahad feeds into a brief section where the US highlights a few of the problems the Yemen military will have in targeting al Qaeda. The issues created by the drone war take a backseat to making viewers understand that cutthroat Islamists have seized parts of Yemen.

That is why FRONTLINE’s primer on the Al Qaeda threat in Yemen is essential reading. It features 11 experts that talk about various aspects including how Al Qaeda grew in Yemen, the relationship between AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia, the US-Yemeni partnership, America’s ramped up targeted killing program and whether there are alternatives to drone or military strikes.

Supporters of drone strikes in Yemen contend drones are better than counterinsurgency operations that would take place on a larger scale. They consider the use of drones to be a kind of least worst option. But, is it really true that there are only two options for addressing socioeconomic problems in Yemen, which embolden Al Qaeda? Are the only options for addressing issues kill with military force or kill with robotic warfare?

Do people really have to choose between counterterror operations involving drones or a country that will be consumed by Al Qaeda forces?

Amel Ahmed, a Yemeni freelance writer, explains:

The nation is literally starving to death. Yemen’s economic and social problems pose a greater threat to the nation than Al Qaeda does. The presence of Al Qaeda is a byproduct of these failing conditions, but instead of addressing these problems our strategy has been to approach the situation with blinders on, a plan that fails to take into account the link between security and a fractured state. A weak central government and collapsing economy provide a vacuum for extremists to exploit, and as long as these issues are inadequately addressed, the region will continue to be vulnerable to extremist elements.

For the U.S., it’s become an absurd game of numbers, I think. We define our success against Al Qaeda by the amount of extremists we kill and nothing else. It is an incredibly misguided approach and it misses the point. Al Qaeda would not be in Yemen but for a discredited central government that has failed to provide its people with opportunities and better living conditions. This was decades in the making. Yemen’s economic and social problems need to be included in any strategy to defeat Al Qaeda otherwise the conditions that first brought them there will continue to work in their favor. … [emphasis added]

It is easy to order the use of military force on a daily basis. Dead people believed to be bad guys can be tallied. Officials can argue this shows operations are producing results. It is much harder to slowly chip away at poverty and improve the economic situation of one of the poorest countries in the world.

Jeremy Scahill, journalist for The Nation, adds:

I believe the escalation of this bombing will ultimately make the U.S. and Yemen less safe and will create more enemies than it eliminates. I think a huge part of the problem with the U.S. in Yemen is that we are ignorant of Yemeni cultures. We see enemies everywhere and we rely on powerful forces with their own agendas — the Saudis and the Yemeni regime — for intelligence. If the U.S. invested more in studying Yemen and developing non military ties with Yemeni groups and tribes, I believe that there are many creative paths to take to confront the relatively minor, non-existential threat of terrorism emanating from Yemen. I’m not saying there is no risk of a plane being brought down by AQAP, but that I believe that old-fashioned intelligence is far better than “signature strikes” and letting the Saudis and Yemeni regime make the U.S.’s target lists so the military or CIA can zap people—who maybe are AQAP and maybe just a farmer with a long beard and a lot of friends—from the sky. [emphasis added]

The drone war will only fuel Al Qaeda. If America really wants Al Qaeda gone for fair and genuine reasons, bombing people with drones that Yemenis fear perhaps as much as Al Qaeda commanders is the last thing the US should be doing. It is guaranteed to help Al Qaeda grow its ranks. However, if America wants to keep on fighting the “war on terror” and ensure there is never an end in sight to this war, deploying flying killer robots is an appropriate answer to the problem of Al Qaeda.

And since the public now knows it is President Obama who plays a personal role in deciding who to kill and who not to kill with drones, it is President Obama, who should answer the question of whether one has to choose between a military occupation or drone war in Yemen to address the menacing presence and repressive culture of Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the problems of Yemen do not seem to be limited to Al Qaeda. Part of the problem appears to stem from the influence and control the US exacts over the country. Both Saleh and now Hadi are in power to serve US interests in the region. Hadi was elected but ran against no opposition. The people of Yemen that rose up in the Arab Spring still rightfully crave democracy. The conflicts, despair and tension in the country go beyond a faction that has expanded its power in Yemen and hates America.

Here’s the FRONTLINE edition on “Al Qaeda in Yemen.”

Watch Al Qaeda in Yemen on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.