How a former al-Qaeda fighter turned informer for Yemen’s government, only to conclude it was duping Washington.
Hani Mujahid chose to tell his story to Al Jazeera because he felt trapped: When the al-Qaeda operative-turned Yemeni government informant tried to brief the CIA on his allegations that Yemen had been playing a double game in the fight against al-Qaeda, he found himself detained and badly beaten by Yemeni security personnel.
No longer able to trust any of the stakeholders, he turned to the media to tell his story. If his allegations prove true, they will be deeply embarrassing to the US.
But the testimony of men like Mujahid, erstwhile foot soldiers of al-Qaeda, is valuable in itself, offering the world unique insights into the motivations of the young men who answered Osama bin Laden’s call to arms.
By his account, he became an insider at the highest levels of both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni security services – and concluded that those two entities had more in common than was generally known.
Hani Mujahid, former al-Qaeda operative turned informant:
Consider me a suicide attacker of another type. My bombing will be the information I shall divulge.
Fall out with al-Qaeda
The story of Mujahid’s remarkable interview with the network began on December 5, 2013, when fighters from AQAP wearing Yemeni military fatigues shot their way past security inside the Ministry of Defence complex and mounted a prolonged and gruesome rampage that killed 52 people, most of them unarmed civilians and medics.
That attack prompted unprecedented unanimity in condemning AQAP among all of Yemen’s political and religious factions, outraged by the targeting of innocent Muslims in a hospital. It also appears to have prompted Mujahid to reach out to 42-year-old lawyer Abdul Rahman Barman.
Barman had not yet taken on Mujahid as a client, but as the director of HOOD, Yemen’s only NGO that specialises in assisting Yemenis harassed by government security agencies, he had met many men like him, developing a reputation as a man willing to help young men from poor families whose harassment by the authorities made them more likely to join al-Qaeda.
Describing families victimised in night raids and men detained without charge for years at a time by Yemeni authorities, Barman felt obliged to intervene. “I realised there was a great risk that those subjected to these oppressive measures might consider joining al-Qaeda,” he said. “I took up their cases and volunteered to defend these families because no other lawyer agreed to defend them.”
The hospital attack prompted al-Qaeda to reach out to Barman with a new offer.
“Brother Abdul Rahman,” Mujahid’s text message to Barman read, “consider me a suicide attacker of another type. My bombing will be the information I shall divulge”. Barman closed his phone, unsure of whether his correspondent was just suffering from the high emotion of the day.
“I believe that the American counterterrorism policy in Yemen is a failed policy,” the lawyer says. “It has bolstered al-Qaeda. Whenever this organisation seems to be fading away the erroneous American policy revives the organisation because it incites many young men to join al-Qaeda.”
Joining a ‘global jihad’
Mujahid had previously met Barman through some of his other clients facing harassment by the security services of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Mujahid’s story was not unfamiliar to the lawyer. Bin Laden’s message of “global jihad” as a response to the problems of the Muslim world had resonated with many young men in Yemen, and in 1998, Mujahid – unemployed, and with only a high school education at age 20 – decided to act on it.
He travelled to Afghanistan for training at al-Qaeda’s al-Farouk and Aynak camps, where he later taught others what he had learned. The US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks saw Mujahid and his al-Qaeda brethren retreat to Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2002, from where they staged cross-border attacks against the US and its allies before being arrested in September 2004 in Quetta by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Following weeks of separate ISI and CIA interrogation and four months in detention, Mujahid was flown back to Yemen, where he was jailed until 2006.
Mujahid says that while imprisoned at Sanaa’s squalid prison, he was tapped to work as an informer for Yemen’s two most powerful security services – the National Security Bureau (NSB) and the Political Security Organisation (PSO). The initial approach came from his uncle, himself a PSO officer, who convinced the al-Qaeda man to switch sides, appealing to his patriotism.
Mujahid’s appeal to any security official looking to penetrate al-Qaeda was obvious: He was known and trusted by the senior leadership of the emerging local chapter, AQAP, with whom he had worked in Afghanistan. But once he began providing information to Yemeni security agents, he says, he soon began to doubt how serious they were about fighting al-Qaeda.
The first incident that troubled him, Mujahid explained, was a July 2, 2007, AQAP ambush that killed 10, including eight Spanish tourists. Mujahid says he warned his handlers of the preparations one week before the operation and then again on the morning of the attack, but that it went ahead without any interference.
He was even more alarmed by the September 17, 2008, attack against the US embassy in Sanaa, which resulted in 19 deaths, most of whom were Yemeni citizens. In Al Jazeera’s documentary – Al-Qaeda Informant – Mujahid alleges that Colonel Ammar Mohammed Saleh, the then-president’s nephew who was second in command at the National Security Bureau, provided AQAP with money and arrangements to receive the explosives they needed for the attack.
Abdul Rahman Barman, Hani Mujahid’s lawyer:
The former regime used al-Qaeda as a scarecrow aimed at the Americans and at the Europeans to obtain support under the pretext of confronting al-Qaeda. In the meantime, it was the regime that directed some of the operations.
Approaching the CIA
Mujahid says that he tried to bring his concerns to the CIA in November 2010, reaching out directly to the US embassy in Sanaa. The CIA agreed over the phone to see him alone at the Movenpick Hotel, but seems to have referred his request to the Yemeni authorities. The Movenpick meeting didn’t happen, because – Mujahid says – he was snatched from the street by NSB officers as he walked to the rendezvous, bundled into a van, beaten and blindfolded, and held in solitary confinement for over a week. Mujahid says that experience broke him.
Colonel Ammar visited him in hospital, he says, later agreeing to release him and even arranging a meeting with the CIA after his hospital discharge. But Mujahid no longer trusted either the Yemeni authorities or the CIA.
By his account, Mujahid tried to come in from the cold and seek a new life, only to find himself a pawn in a double game being played by Yemeni security agencies against their US allies. As his lawyer, Barman, put it, “The former regime used al-Qaeda as a scarecrow aimed at the Americans and at the Europeans to obtain support under the pretext of confronting al-Qaeda. In the meantime, it was the regime that directed some of the operations.”
The only way out of his dilemma, Mujahid concluded after extensive consultation with his lawyer, was to take his case to the media. Barman met with Mujahid and a number of fellow current and former al-Qaeda colleagues in early 2014 to discuss a plan to reveal all to the media, but ultimately only Mujahid was willing to proceed.
Mujahid speaks to Al Jazeera
At a location outside the Gulf region, Barman was present at all times during the three days of Mujahid’s interviews with Al Jazeera in the fall of 2014, and later agreed to be separately interviewed himself.
By then, Yemen was well on its way to war.
In September 2014, the president of the US had memorably described Yemen as a counterterrorism success story. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us,” said President Barack Obama, “while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years”.
Abdul Rahman Barman, Hani Mujahid’s lawyer:
I believe that the American counterterrorism policy in Yemen is a failed policy. It has bolstered al-Qaeda. Whenever this organisation seems to be fading away the erroneous American policy revives the organisation because it incites many young men to join al-Qaeda.
Barman and Mujahid tell a different story. “I believe that the American counterterrorism policy in Yemen is a failed policy,” the lawyer says. “It has bolstered al-Qaeda. Whenever this organisation seems to be fading away the erroneous American policy revives the organisation because it incites many young men to join al-Qaeda.”
Barman highlights unrelenting drone strikes inside Yemen as counterproductive. Conservative estimates by the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism put the confirmed number of civilians killed in more than 97 drone strikes at somewhere between 65 and 97.
Barman says these drone attacks have “prompted many ordinary citizens to say that the Americans are targeting all the people [indiscriminately] and that the Americans are killing us because we are Muslims – therefore, whoever is fighting America is the one on the right track. Many young men joined the al-Qaeda organisation because of this policy.”
Mujahid did not mince words, neither for the Americans nor for al-Qaeda, the organisation he once loved and says he would have died for. I asked him about how bin Laden would have seen AQAP today as, like the Americans, it too has evolved into carrying out attacks inside Yemen, his ancestral homeland. “Sheikh Osama bin Laden did not see at all [the need for] any jihadi action in Yemen,” Mujahid answered. “He had conviction of that. He believed that the youth of Yemen and the people of Yemen are people of [logistical] support for his jihadi work in the countries of the rest of the world. But for Yemen he did not believe in this at all.”
Mujahid’s testimony offers rare insight into the thinking of young men who have chosen to fight for al-Qaeda – a perspective vital to international efforts to understand and counter the organisation. And their perspective potentially reveals some truths inconvenient to the post-9/11 US narrative of a “Global War on Terror”, posing the question of whether a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda was, in fact, playing a double game in order to manipulate Washington.
This article was first published by Aljazeeraljazeera.
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