By Tom Meade
Kalashnikovs, dilapidated cities and drone destruction gripped the audience at an overflowing screening of In the Hands of Al Qaeda on Monday 4 February at the Frontline Club. Award-winning journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and producer Jamie Doran were on hand after the screening to answer questions on Yemen, al Qaeda and the making of their latest film.
The Yemeni Ambassador to the UK was also at the Club so questions on government policy,and even visa requests, were often redirected to him.
Abdul-Ahad explained how factionalised domestic politics in Yemen enabled al Qaeda’s existence within these divisions, thriving on the distrust and mutual hatred of the north and south. He said:
“The tribesmen – the separatists – they’re armed and had the capability to kick al Qaeda from the region but they have an apathy towards the state. ‘Why do we do the job of the government, we hate them, we don’t like them, they stole our land.’ This is what they say.”
He added that to persuade reticent southerners, al Qaeda would say:
“‘Look at the government, they brought the Americans, look what they’ve done [with drone strikes].’ . . . It’s this triangle of a love-hate thing – everyone is hating everyone.”
Al Qaeda’s exploitation of the north-south political divide goes even further. They even began an unusually pragmatic campaign to win popular support. Abdul-Ahad said:
“They brought an engineer and he connected a small village to the main grid that was going to Ja’ar, because for a long time they had to pay a bribe to get connected. They allowed UNICEF to go into the schools. . . . They were working on this hearts and minds kind of programme with the people.”
Al Qaeda filled the void left by the state drawing support from the southern population. Doran explained the importance of the southern political situation and how they tried to incorporate this extra dimension into the international version of the film.
“There is a tremendous frustration in the south that their cause is not aired publicly. You rarely hear, unfortunately, about Yemen at all in the news. Normally it’s a US drone strike.”
Abdul-Ahad said the strikes themselves become a huge part of the problem:
“The drones will kill al Qaeda people who will probably have a direct impact on the security of the United States, but for every guy, every [innocent] man killed in south Yemen, you will have 10 people joining al Qaeda. . . . It’s absurd, these whole 10 years we are still recycling these post-9/11 scenarios.”
Asked about the situation for women in al Qaeda-held territory, especially as the film’s camera operator was female, Abdul-Ahad’s reply highlighted the need to use development to tackle security issues.
“You free – you fix – the society yourself, you spread education, you work on girl’s schools. Yes, al Qaeda comes with their own ideology, but there are problems that exist in our society that have to be dealt with by a non-security, non-military solution.”
The Yemeni Ambassador in the audience fully agreed:
“There is another means to fight al Qaeda, not only in Yemen, in the whole war: poverty, taking care of the youth, education, education, education. This is very important.”