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FRONTLINE: Al Qaeda In Yemen

An Al Qaeda police force on the back of a pickup truck prepares to go on patrol in town of Azzan, Yemen.
Courtesy of FRONTLINE
An Al Qaeda police force on the back of a pickup truck prepares to go on patrol in town of Azzan, Yemen.

Airs Friday, June 1, 2012 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Since the death of Osama bin Laden, Yemen has become the hottest front in the war against Al Qaeda. Now, with headlines about an alleged terrorist plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner and a suicide bomber killing about 100 soldiers in the capital, Sana, President Obama has expressed concern about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

"You've cheated death, like, 500 times. ... You have, like, these two little gates on the two sides of your brain, and one of them is saying: "It's not worth it. It's a story, and so what? We all know that there are insurgents, and they're fighting the Americans." ... But then you tell yourself, "but you really want to go inside that group of people, that community, and see why they are doing these things, how they are thinking and what's their life like." - Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

"We are very concerned about Al Qaeda activity and extremist activity in Yemen," Obama said at a NATO conference in Chicago. "We have established a strong counterterrorism partnership with the Yemeni government. And we're going to continue to work with the Yemeni government to try to identify AQAP leadership and operations and try to thwart them."


In FRONTLINE special report, "Al Qaeda in Yemen," airing Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 10 p.m., Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reporting for FRONTLINE, travels deep into Yemen's radical heartland to look at how members of Al Qaeda, describing themselves as the group Ansar al-Sharia, have seized control of cities and towns and are winning support among some in the local population—and recruiting militants—by administering scarce resources.

Abdul-Ahad gained rare access to some of the most dangerous AQAP strongholds in the south. "From the moment that you got that call, it's extreme anxiety," says Abdul-Ahad about traveling with insurgents. "This is an organization known for its kidnapping [of] journalists, detaining them for a long time, sometimes beheading them, so it's a very, very difficult choice."

An Al Qaeda spokesman, Fouad, who accompanied the FRONTLINE team through territory controlled by the militants, tells Abdul-Ahad that the group has grand ambitions: the creation of its own state. "Our fighters always wanted an Islamic state. They didn't just want to fight. They wanted a state with services and institutions, a state to take care of its citizens and [which] represents Islamic law," he says.

"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," U.S. ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein tells FRONTLINE. "The fact of the matter is that they continue to try to find ways to attack not only here in Yemen, but in the United States, in the neighborhood against Saudi Arabia, against Western Europe and the U.K. So they have global aspirations, and we consider that they still present a very significant challenge."

For the man who runs Yemen's counterterrorism forces, targeted in the recent suicide attack, Gen. Yahya Saleh —nephew of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh—the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Yemen is very real. "Al Qaeda today is not the same as Al Qaeda a year and a half ago. They have more followers, more money, more guns; the area they control is bigger, and this is a great danger."


Yet internal power struggles within the Yemeni government and the army have created space in which Al Qaeda can operate. Instead of using their resources to fight Al Qaeda, politicians loyal to deposed president Ali Saleh are battling his opponents and those who support his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

But Al Qaeda is not without effective opposition. Before his death, Osama bin Laden warned Al Qaeda in Yemen that the main threat to their survival was not U.S. drone attacks, not the Yemeni army, but antagonizing Yemen's tribes. Abdul-Ahad travels to the town of Lawdar, where he discovers that Al Qaeda had been driven from power by local residents after assassinating a tribal leader.

Also in this episode, the story of Al Qaeda operative Fahd al Quso — killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen early this month — as told by former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who first interrogated him before 9/11.

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

FRONTLINE investigates how Al Qaeda and affiliated militants have seized areas in southern Yemen — and are winning some popular support.
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Watch The Interrogator on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan told FRONTLINE last year that his interrogation of Quso after the USS Cole attack brought him close to uncovering the 9/11 plot. In the excerpt above, Soufan recalls how he was able to extract “significant information” from interrogating Quso before 9/11, not only about the USS Cole bombing and the terrorist camps in Afghanistan Quso had trained in, but also about a complex web of key Al Qaeda figures. But Soufan says he was unable to get crucial intelligence from the CIA, and therefore his inquiry stopped short of exposing the link between Quso and the gathering threat. When Soufan went back to interview Quso after 9/11 — now armed with a series of surveillance photos of a 9/11 planning meeting given to him by the CIA — he connected Quso to two operatives who flew Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Soufan argues that the original interrogations of Fahd Quso were a missed opportunity, and therefore a turning point in American history.