As a rule, Frontline distinguishes itself through the breadth and quality, rather than the speed, of its reporting. It is not a program beholden to the 24-hour news cycle; If anything, its producers seek out stories that are being neglected by mainstream media outlets, which of course these days means just about anything other than Donald Trump and face-eating maniacs in Miami. Last week’s stomach-churning report on the risks faced by cell tower climbers is just one recent example of this show’s ability to influence the agenda in a positive way and draw attention to under-reported issues. But even when Frontline turns to more obviously newsworthy subjects, as it does with tonight’s “Al Qaeda In Yemen,” it can be relied upon for brave, thought-provoking journalism.
In recent years, Yemen has become a hotbed for terrorism and extremist activity, and last Monday, a suicide bomber killed close to 100 soldiers in the Yemeni capitol of Sanaa, an attack that makes tonight’s report an unusually timely one. At considerable personal risk, correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad—also a writer for The Guardian—and his director, Safa al-Ahmad, travel to various Al Qaeda strongholds in Southern Yemen. First up is the city of Jaar, which is effectively ruled by Ansar al-Sharia, the regional Al Qaeda affiliate. As U.S. ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein explains, this is a highly unique situation. Unlike the Taliban, Al Qaeda doesn’t have a history of actually gaining and holding territory, but the once-diffuse organization is now solidifying its power across Yemen. Their guide on this tour is Fouad, an Al Qaeda spokesman who puts the group’s mission in stark terms: the establishment of their own Islamic state.
As with so many other criminal organizations, the appeal of Al Qaeda is their ability to rid the streets of crime—even if this requires brutal enforcement . In Jaar, for instance, the entire city comes to a halt at prayer time, with shopkeepers abandoning their stores to head to the mosque. No one even bothers closing their doors. The reprisals are brutal: One man, a suspected spy, was crucified. (We even see his body in a brief, yet thoroughly gruesome, bit of eyewitness video.)
It’s little wonder that Abdul-Ahad decides to leave Jaar before nightfall; more wondrous is the material he’s able to get in what must have been only a few hours on the ground, including footage of 70 Yemeni soldiers held hostage. The situation in Aden, where Abdul-Ahad waits for the next call from his contact, is not much better. More than a year after the Yemani uprisings began, protests still rage, and there’s considerable resentment toward the military, and it’s not difficult to see why. From their perch on a hillside, soldiers open fire on the funeral of a teenage girl killed just days before—by the army.
After this respite, Abdul-Ahad ventures even deeper into Al Qaeda territory, to the dusty, desolate city of Azzan, one of the most dangerous places in a country that’s hardly wanting for them. He says the mood here is more sinister, and indeed by comparison, Azzan makes Jaar seems like a quaint desert outpost. Abdul-Ahad is unable to record his conversations with the various operatives he meets, or even to carry his cell phone with him, but he’s still able to convey a strong sense of the place. Despite the area’s sparse population, there’s an Al Qaeda recruiting station in town, well-stocked with videos, pamphlets and various other forms of propaganda. Not so far away is a crater in the ground, a physical reminder of the drone attack that killed American Al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Alwaki here last year. And one of the hottest items around are the videos lauding men who have survived such attacks, which is seen as “a badge of honor.” (For those of you keeping track, the drone attacks are yet another example of how US military tactics might actually embolden our enemies overseas.)
While he waits to hear about a possible interview with a high-ranking Al Qaeda officer back in Azzan—a man who we eventually learn was killed by American drone attacks on May 6—Abdul-Ahad makes two more stops. He first visits the capitol city of Sanaa, where he finds increasing division among the US-supported military. What, exactly, they’re divided over is not fully explained: this report doesn’t provide a tremendous amount of context for the situation in Yemen, though it almost makes up for this shortcoming with its overwhelming sense of urgency and stunning access. In an eerie moment of foreshadowing, al-Ahmad captures footage of an elite unit of soldiers marching through a square in Sanaa. We are later told that this very unit was attacked in last week’s suicide bombing, in retaliation for the army’s efforts to win back Al Qaeda territory in south Yemen. How’s that for prescient?
In the final minutes of the report, Abdul-Ahad goes to Lawder, a town where, a band of local residents has successfully warded off Al Qaeda forces, but theirs is a constant battle. Despite a nearby army base, the men of Lawder are largely left to go it alone. Again, a more thorough explanation might have been useful: Why isn’t the military helping? Are they pro-Al Qaeda in this part of the country, or are they simply too intimidated? In contrast, what makes the local tribal leaders and townspeople so stridently anti-Al Qaeda? In the end, I’m left with a lot of questions, but surely there are worse things than wanting to know more.