A prize arrest

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,9 January, 2004

YEMENI AUTHORITIES have apparently gleaned valuable information from the interrogation of a senior al-Qaeda suspect who was arrested last month.

Saudi-born Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal is said to have admitted planning, financing and coordinating the attack on USS Cole in Aden harbour three years ago, as well as planning the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg last year.

Al-Ahdal, also known as Abu Asim al-Makki, was regarded by the United States as one of the 20 most-wanted al-Qaeda figures. According to Yemeni officials he supervised the financing and operational planning of attacks in Yemen and also had good connections with extremists in other parts of the region.

He reportedly fought in Bosnia and in Chechnya, and visited Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000.

After losing the lower part of his left leg in Chechnya he shifted from taking part in attacks to planning and organising them, Yemeni officials say.

He also allegedly organised attempts to infiltrate Yemeni security in order to get advance warning of arrests and raids directed against militants.

Yemen is sharing information obtained from al-Ahdal with neighbouring Saudi Arabia, under a security cooperation agreement. Al-Ahdal was previously arrested by Saudi authorities in 1999 and spent 14 months in jail in the kingdom before being deported to Yemen.

A Yemeni newspaper, al-Balagh, reported last week that al-Ahdal had identified "a number of prominent Arab personalities" as supporting al-Qaeda activities in Yemen. Officials have not divulged the prominent people's names but they are said to be Yemeni, Saudi and Kuwaiti. The US has been hinting for some time at the involvement of at least one well-known Yemeni.

It has also emerged that a group of 20 Islamic militants were planning to attack the British embassy in Sana'a with a truck bomb earlier this year. A BBC report last week said the plot was foiled when they were caught making a video of the building from every angle.

The embassy, like the British consulate in Turkey that was attacked recently, is difficult to protect because it is located on a main road and overlooked by other buildings. It is currently surrounded by concrete blocks to guard against car bombs.

Meanwhile, Yemen is experimenting with a novel scheme to release detained militants after "re-education". The move is partly a response to complaints about the large number of suspects who are being held in Yemen without trial.

Last September, Amnesty international said that around 200 were under arrest, including several children. The Yemeni authorities acknowledged that some of the security measures breached their own laws but said they were obliged to "fight terrorism" to avert the risk of US military action.

The re-education scheme applies only to detainees who have not committed actual acts of terrorism. Ten have been freed and a further 92 are scheduled for release, presidential adviser Abd al-Karim al-Iryani said during a visit to London.

The detainees are given religious instruction about the true meaning of jihad, Dr Iryani said. Those who accept the teaching are asked to sign repentance documents before they can be released.

They are also told they will be kept under surveillance and their families must act as guarantors of their future good behaviour.

"Politically, humanely, it's much better than keeping them in jail," Dr Iryani said.

At the end of this month Yemen is also due to release two Britons and two Algerians when they complete five-year sentences on terrorism charges.

The four were members of a group linked to the London-based preacher, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who travelled to Yemen in 1998 and made contact with the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan which is said to have links to al-Qaeda.

Their arrests prompted the Islamic Army to kidnap a group of western tourists in the hope of securing their release, but the plan went wrong and four of the tourists died when Yemeni security forces tried to release them. The leader of the Islamic Army was later executed.