Aaron Schachter: Yemen has been on high alert all week for a possible attack by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The militant group known as AQAP is believed to be al-Qaeda's most dangerous franchise in the region which is why the US is reportedly targeting it's members with so many drone strikes. There have been several in recent days. Two suspected US drone strikes were reported just today. Yemeni officials said the strikes killed a total of nine alleged al-Qaeda militants, but there was no comment from American officials; there hardly ever is. The BBC's Yalda Hakim recently visited the coastal town of Zinjibar in southern Yemen that's been the target of dozens of US drone attacks.
Yalda Hakim: The situation in the country and areas like Zinjibar is that people get on with their daily lives. But, of course, when I went in there I had to leave my team behind, my BBC team behind, while I traveled in with a local team dressed completely as a local. And, of course, the situation there is completely tense. There were a number of checkpoints we had to cross before entering the town. And when I got in there, it was a town that was completely reduced to rubble because these people are not only dealing with al-Qaeda fighting in the shadows, but there was a major offensive last year where the Yemeni military overthrew al-Qaeda, and, of course, US drones hovering in the air. So well, we can say the people get on with their daily lives, they go to the market, they buy their groceries, their children go to school, but, of course, they're living in a town that anything can happen at any time.
Schachter: Right. And so the issue in Zinjibar isn't just American drone strikes. It is the broader, what used to be called the war on terror?
Hakim: Absolutely. I think the people there feel helpless. They're dealing with three different fronts – al-Qaeda on the one hand, then they've got the Yemeni military who have a grip over the town, but it's very fragile and they could lose it at any given time, and, of course, these drones hover overhead all the time. But the people there told me that they are equally as scared, if not more, of the drones than they are of al-Qaeda.
Schachter: Well, you know, what we hear in this US is this anger that Yemenis feel because the drone strikes are so unpredictable. They can hear this aircraft flying overhead and they don't know who is gonna be the next target. But I wonder if there's also anger toward Yemeni authorities and al-Qaeda. I mean in essence al-Qaeda is bringing the fight to Zinjibar, no?
Hakim: Absolutely. These people told me they don't want to live under al-Qaeda rule. They lived under al-Qaeda rule and it was brutal. It was horrifying for them. But equally they're angry at not just the United States, but also at their central government because in many ways that the central government is putting the sovereignty of their country at stake here by allowing US drones to come in and hunt down these terrorists. When the United States gets it right they get militants, but when they get it wrong it kills civilians and they get angry. I spoke to one man, his name was Mohammed Ahmed Bagash and his eight-year-old daughter was killed in a drone strike and we have a clip of what he had to say.
Mohammed Ahmed Bagash: [Speaking Arabic]
Interpreter: It was as if everyone was burning. It was all dark. When the smoke cleared I saw my son's leg was bleeding and my daughter was hit on the back of the head. As she bled, she went yellow. She actually started to shrink in my arms.
Schachter: It is a tragic story. Does Mohammed blame one side or the other?
Hakim: Mohammed said to me, "We're not naturally sympathetic to al-Qaeda. We don't like al-Qaeda and it's not that we hate America. We don't hate America." He said, "But what we hate is how unpredictable this is and the fact that when they hit our civilians and kill children there's never an acknowledgment, no apology." But who does step in? It's al-Qaeda that they claim steps in and offers to pay compensation, offers to pay for funeral costs, and then pressures these local villagers to join up al-Qaeda and take revenge.
Schachter: Yalda, ten years or so of this fight against al-Qaeda, no end in sight. How does Yemen move forward?
Hakim: Well, Yemen, at the moment, is a fragile state. It has a power vacuum. They just, a few years ago, overthrew their dictator of more than thirty years. So it's a state trying to bring itself back on its feet and with this kind of power vacuum a group like al-Qaeda will take advantage and create a haven out of Yemen. And I was told by other analysts that three years ago there might have been three hundred al-Qaeda members in the country. We're now looking at thousands. And the only way to assist the Yemeni people is not through a military offensive, but in a way, sort out the issues of corruption and unemployment and education in the country and perhaps put the country back on the road to recovery and the people themselves will stand up against al-Qaeda.
Schachter: The BBC's Yalda Hakim recently back from Yemen. Yalda, thank you so much.
Hakim: Thank you so much for having me.