Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. The political turmoil in Yemen over the past year has proven to be a bonus for al-Qaeda. The terror group's local affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken advantage of the chaos to win control of parts of the country. This despite US drone strikes that have killed some of its leaders recently. Yesterday, in a speech defending the use of drone strikes, White House Counter-Terrorism official John Brennan admitted that al-Qaeda remains strong in Yemen. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a report for the Guardian newspaper in London. He's just back from visiting Southern Yemen and he says al-Qaeda fighters there are no longer confined to their mountain bases are they were during his last visit in 2010.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Now in 2012, they are down into the coastal areas. They control cities, they control towns. I drove from Aden to Shabwa, a few hundred kilometers. The road, had their checkpoints on the road. So they have a bigger influence at the moment. They are down in towns, they run social services, they've abolished taxes, they provide electricity. So they have far more influence. So I don't know what influence the drones have in the past two years. Military speaking, they are much stronger than the Yemeni army at the moment.
Werman: As long as you're talking about those checkpoints, you describe in your story for the Guardian how on one journey you travel through eight or nine Jihadi checkpoints. What is that like? I mean checkpoints are notoriously corrupt little situations.
Abdul-Ahad: They are corrupt little situations, but then at the same time checkpoints are the symbol of authority in the Middle East. So by them manning checkpoints, planting their flags, manning the checkpoints with a lot of gunmen, they are trying to tell you, the Jihadis, that, "We are a force on the ground," that, "We are estates. We have our own security services, and we are doing exactly what the state would do." So that's the strange thing of having Jihadi checkpoints. You know, when I was in Iraq, when I drove through Afghanistan and Somalia, when you see the black flag, this is sign of death for you as a journalist. You know, this is 'end of the game'. Yet there they use these flags to have checkpoints. They don't stop you, they don't take bribes, they let you pass, they just search for weapons in the cars, and they're trying to give this feel that, "We're different from the days of Iraq and Afghanistan."
Werman: Now, you spoke with Jihadis in Southern Yemen when you were there. Why are they fighting? What did they tell you? What do they want?
Abdul-Ahad: Well, it's the same combination of old, you know, this, the same old rhetoric that you hear in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia, fighting for Sharia, fighting for Islamic state, fighting for justice, fighting the Americans, the invaders, and all the same old rhetoric. But one of the guys I was talking to, he said, "We want a state of institutions, a state of services." He talks about democracy. So their rhetoric has changed.
Werman: They're talking about democracy?
Abdul-Ahad: Not about democracy. They hate democracy, but they talk about a state of services and institutions. They refer to democracy, they refer to the Arab dictators as a creation of Western democracy. So they oppose democracy. They way they speak, the way their rhetoric has totally shifted post Arab Spring and post Arab revolutions, now they're not talking with the same, you know, they have the same words that came from the old rhetoric of Afghanistan, of the mountains of Afghanistan, but put in a new context as if all what's happening now in the Arab world is sort of their achievement, they've started the revolution, now the masses are. . . So they are now using this new rhetoric and, again, they are different because they are more dangerous on the context on the ground because in the old days, they were, again, back in the mountains. They had no contact with the locals on the ground. Now they have, you know, contact with the locals. Now, again, they re-brand themselves as a state.
Werman: Are the locals under their sway? Do they accept what they're trying to do?
Abdul-Ahad: They are not trying to get into confrontation with the locals. They've allowed the locals to [Wen Jiabao], smoke, listen to music and they say, "Gradually we will ban them from doing these things." So they are much smarter.
Werman: Set the scene for us, Ghaith. What did Southern Yemen actually look like?
Abdul-Ahad: In general it's a huge, big country, predominantly desert, mountainous, you know, feuding tribes, and in the middle of that chaos, al-Qaeda has found a footstep and from there they can emerge as a major player in the south of Yemen.
Werman: And, Ghaith, just finally I'm curious to know how the people in Southern Yemen kind of reacted to you as this journalist working for a Western news organization.
Abdul-Ahad: They have an insurgency going on and because of that, they really welcome any journalists visiting them. They want to tell their stories, the state of the revolution. The Jihadis, it's a different story of course. Like everywhere else, you need to go with, you know, local contacts, people who are from the area. You need a sort of someone to vouch for you, to kind of guarantee your safety when you're driving through their lands. But, again, the Jihadis are more sophisticated Jihadis than the Jihadis of Somalia for example or Afghanistan. They have a press office, they have a media organization. In one of the towns that I visited, they have a sort of hut on the side of the road with two kids working on a computer, copying sermons of [inaudible] the preacher . . .
Abdul-Ahad: . . . and sermons of the northern and handing it to the people. So they are trying to show themselves in a more sophisticated light than the Jihadis in Iraq or in Afghanistan for example.
Werman: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad with the Guardian newspaper in London. Thanks so much.
Abdul-Ahad: Thanks you.