Yemen's fight against resurgent Al Qaeda
The government is backing a feature film to warn young Yemenis against radical jihad.
The LandCruiser snaked along a desert road driven by a suicide bomber toward his target – unwitting tourists. "God is great," he shouted before carrying out the destructive mission.
It's a terrifying scene that is part of the new government-backed movie, "The Losing Bet," that premièred last Sunday to educate the public about the consequences of Islamist extremism.
"Terrorists are outnumbered by millions of Yemenis who love their country," says Interior Minister Mutahar al-Masri, speaking after the première. "The film is part of our efforts to enlist the help and cooperation of the Yemeni people."
The plot follows two Yemeni jihadis, who return from years living abroad. They were sent home by an Al Qaeda leader to recruit new members to carry out deadly operations in Yemen. Austere and intolerant, they clash with their families who make a living by selling goods and services to tourists.
"Every terrorist is someone's son or brother," says the film's producer, Fadl al-Olfi. "We wanted to portray the radicalization process taking place within a community, to alert young people to the signs of extremism and show family members they can help by informing the authorities about worrying behavior."
The film comes on the heels of a crackdown on militants in the desert province of Hadramaut. In the past three weeks, security forces have killed five Al Qaeda suspects and arrested more than 30 suspected Al Qaeda members. Two Saudi passports were found among documents seized in this month's raids and interrogations revealed apparent plans to launch terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, according to reports in Yemeni newspapers.
The raids underline the importance of Yemen's internal security to Saudi Arabia, but Yemen is also paying the price for the northern kingdom's clampdown on its own insurgents. In March, a Saudi terror financier admitted that Al Qaeda's branch in Saudi Arabia was defeated and called on his associates to flee to Yemen.
Yemen lacks the resources to tackle terrorism in the same robust manner as the Saudis – its per capita gross domestic product of $2,300 is dwarfed by $23,200 in Saudi Arabia.
The current migration of Saudi jihadis to Yemen coincides with the emergence of Al Qaeda in the South of the Arabian Peninsula and a move to integrate different branches of Al Qaeda across borders, according to Nicole Stracke at the Gulf Research Center. "Al Qaeda in the Southern Peninsula, or elsewhere, does not operate with a national mind-set. They don't think in terms of states, such as Saudi Arabia or Yemen. They are jihadis. They think globally."
Hamza al-Quyati, born to a Yemeni family in Saudi Arabia, was among those killed in Hadramaut. The defense ministry claims Mr. Quyati was responsible for a misfired mortar strike on the US Embassy in March, which hit a girls' school next door by mistake, and a suicide bombing that killed eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni drivers in July 2007.
"Al Quyati was a spokesman for Yemen's new generation, who reject the tacit nonaggression pact between older members of Al Qaeda and the government," says Princeton analyst Gregory Johnsen, referring to "covenant-of-security" deals struck with Yemeni mujahideen fighters who returned home after Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union.
The Yemeni regime has become a target for this generation of Al Qaeda, adds Mr. Johnsen. “The alleged torture and humiliation of captive Al Qaeda members is a constant sore point.”
Quyati headed an active splinter cell, the Soldiers’ Brigades of Yemen, which encouraged new recruits to shift the focus of their hostility. In July, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a police station in Hadramaut. In a statement issued on Aug. 23, the Soldier’s Brigade of Yemen pledged to continue attacks against security and intelligence structures.
The recent uptick in terrorist activity has prevented efforts to successfully diversify Yemen's fragile economy, which is heavily dependent on dwindling oil supplies. Tourism faltered after last July's car bomb and a January attack that left two Belgians and two Yemenis dead.
"Young people realize that extremists are damaging inward investment and job creation," says Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Yemen's foreign minister.
"The Losing Bet" was conceived to appeal to young men who are struggling to find jobs in a country where unemployment runs at 40 percent, according to producer Dr. Olfi. In a pivotal scene that begins the process of radicalization, a devout jihadi wearing a long beard and white robes pays off the debts of three idle youths. The trio quickly succumb to his charisma.
"We can identify with the characters," say students Watthur and Hassan in unison. "The story is authentic. It really expresses the problems we're facing."
• Research for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.