Sitting down to tea in Yemen with the mother of al-Qaeda militants

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is "The World", the co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. In war, enemies are often depicted as anything but fellow human beings. It's certainly the case in the war against violent extremism, especially when the enemy is a militant suspected of killing innocent civilians, but Al Qaeda militants are of course humans, and they have families too. The BBC's Shaimaa Khalil was recently in Yemen, where she had the rare access to a family that's produced three Al Qaeda militants, all brothers. Shaimaa met with their mother, Umm Fawaz, and their sister, Amina, at their home in a poor suburb of Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. First off, I want you to hear the mother's emotion. Umm Fawaz: [Speaking {Arabic}] Werman: Shaimaa, first of all, where are her boys, and what did they do? Shaimaa Khalil: Well, one of her boys is dead now. He was captured by the Yemeni authorities, escaped prison and was killed in a skirmish between him and the Yemeni Security Forces. Another one is still in Yemeni prisons, and the third one is in Guantanamo Bay. The first thing that you hear are her tears, and to be honest, the first thing I saw were her tears. It was rare access in many ways. You don't get to meet family members of Al Qaeda militants every day, and because I'm a woman, they're able to show me their face. When I went in and sat down on their floor in the living room - they don't have much furniture. So, we sat down on their floor, had a cup of tea and they showed me their faces, and when I mentioned the three names of her sons, the mother just broke down in tears. She said, "Every time I think about them, I think about my loss. I think about the three sons that I've lost, and look at me now. I have nothing." Werman: Did you get a sense of why Al Qaeda was such an appealing option for these three guys? Khalil: The sister, Amina, put it to me this way: She said, "These are young men who get really, really disgruntled with the government from a very, very early age." There's a crackdown on Islamist militants and young men, who don't necessarily have any affiliations to begin with, are taken to prisons and in the prisons is where they get radicalized." She told me, for instance, about when she went to visit her brother in the Yemeni prison, she found young boys, as young as 15 years old, and she said, "These young boys, they mix with men, they're radicalized, and so they go out and they're seeking revenge, and they're extremely easy targets because they're already very, very angry at the government and they hold so much hate, and they want to take it out, and the easy place they go is Al Qaeda." Werman: Shaimaa, you had a very frank conversation with these women, and I'd like our listeners to hear this question that you put to the daughter, Amina. "Shaimaa Khalil: The problem with your country, and the problem with Yemen at the moment, is that because of actions, like those of your brothers, Yemen is now seen as the hub of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. What do you say to young men in your country who are involved with Al Qaeda and who keep attacking not just foreigners, but Yemenis as well?" Werman: So, Shaimaa, how did she reply to that, and was she at all defensive? Khalil: She did get defensive and she went on blaming the government. She said, "If the government could contain these young men, if the government would include these young men in jobs, in society, they wouldn't go around doing what they do." But again, she's a family member of those three men. There are many, many other family members, of course, that have lost their loved ones because of actions of members of Al Qaeda, like her brothers. Werman: What kind of social class, economically, is this family? Khalil: I got a sense that they were working class. Like I said, they didn't have much in terms of furniture or belongings. They had a very, very simple house. Many of the rooms were unfinished. I had a feeling that the cup of tea that they offered me was one of the very, very few things that they had in the kitchen and they were trying to be hospitable. We were sitting on the floor. Also, the neighborhood that they lived in was on the outskirts of Sana'a, it wasn't in downtown, and it was in a very, very poor neighborhood. What I also felt - that they were quite isolated. Normally these neighborhoods, especially the poor neighborhoods in places like Sana'a are quite close knit. I didn't feel that that was the case. They felt quite isolated and they kept to themselves, and even the sister told me at one point, she said, "We don't mix with anyone, and to be honest my social life is ruined, including my marriage," because of what happened with her brothers. Werman: The BBC's Shaimaa Khalil just back from Yemen. Thank you very much for speaking with us. Khalil: Thanks Marco.