A former Al Qaeda operative turned Yemeni-government informant steps out of the shadows to speak with Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit.
He reveals a sinister double game played by Al Qaeda and the former Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Al Qaeda Informant
Al Qaeda Informant
Like many Yemeni men of his age, Hani Muhammad Mujahid had recently graduated high school in the late 1990s when he was recruited to travel to Afghanistan and join Al-Qaeda.
“I went there [to join Al-Qaeda] when I was young and not [fully] aware.”
At the time, Al-Qaeda was allied with the Taliban and fully operational in Afghanistan, with several training camps throughout the country and its border region with Pakistan.
TRAINING WITH AL-QAEDA
Mujahid, who hailed from Yemen’s Taiz province, ended up at the Aynak and Al-Faruq training camps, where he was trained in the use of explosives and became so proficient that he was tasked with training other recruits.
As one of the youth who loved Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, and who believed in the jihad cause, I pledged bay’ah [an oath of allegiance] to [him].
Though Mujahid denied to Al Jazeera that he had worked as a bomb-maker, Al Jazeera has confirmed that he did indeed perform that role.
WAR IN AFGHANISTAN
After the 9/11 attacks, Mujahid and the rest of Al-Qaeda’s fighters mobilised in anticipation of a US invasion of Afghanistan.
Eventually if an Afghan saw you walking in the street, he would immediately turn around and look for the American planes.
Al-Qaeda was scattered by the force with which it was attacked by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, according to Mujahid, with several operatives killed and many arrested.
ARREST IN PAKISTAN
Mujahid was among the Al-Qaeda fighters who retreated from Afghanistan and set up operations in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.
“Al-Qaeda was, in a sense, torn apart. Sheikh Osama Bin Laden disappeared during the period [of most intensity following the US invasion of Afghanistan].”
Based in Waziristan, from where he and his fellow Al-Qaeda fighters attacked US troops stationed in Afghanistan, Mujahid eventually found himself arrested and interrogated by both Pakistani intelligence and US intelligence officers.
BACK TO YEMEN
After 10 days of interrogation, and just four months of imprisonment, in 2004 Mujahid was flown back to Yemen under escort on a civilian airliner, where he was thrown into a prison controlled by Yemen’s Political Security Organisation.
Two years later, he was released and tasked he says with serving the Yemeni security services as an informer inside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
A REQUEST IS MADE OF HANI
Due to his experience in Al-Qaeda as well as the strong relationships he had built, Mujahid was perfectly placed to provide the Yemeni authorities with intelligence on AQAP’s activities.
“I had a relative in Political Security who convinced me that [my] duty [to inform on Al-Qaeda] was national, as well as Islamic and human.”
The fragmentation of Al-Qaeda and decentralisation of its leadership led to the development of Yemen-based AQAP as one of the network’s most active branches. Mujahid offered unique insights into the group through his close links to its leaders and detailed knowledge of its modus operandi.
A NEW GROUP IN YEMEN EMERGES
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had emerged in the late 2000s. Many of its leaders were among nearly two dozen individuals who had escaped from a maximum-security prison in Sanaa in February 2006. According to several analysts, intelligence officials, and Mujahid, the prison break was not simply an escape.
[It is] absolutely farcical that [the Yemeni government] would claim [the Al-Qaeda prison escape] is legitimate, i.e., not something they turned their back to, to allow it to happen.
US AMBASSADOR IN YEMEN 2007-2010
Those who escaped from prison included Nasir al-Wihayshi, who would become the leader of AQAP, and Qasim al-Raymi, who would be its military commander. Mujahid knew both well, he says, and referred to them by their aliases Abu Basir and Abu Hurayra, respectively.
LIFE OF AN INFORMANT BEGINS
Mujahid was closely connected to and respected by AQAP’s leadership due to their shared experiences in Afghanistan. Because of this, he says he was able to gain detailed knowledge of AQAP attacks, which included suicide bombings of tourist destinations and an assault on the US embassy.
“Few people have had as full a picture as this person is apparently presenting of what’s going on in the leadership of probably the most active branch of Al-Qaeda at the time.”
FORMER DIRECTOR, UN AL-QAEDA MONITOR
If Mujahid’s account is to be believed, the Yemeni government knew about these attacks well in advance, and failed to take action to stop them.
ATTACK ON SPANISH TOURISTS
One of the first attacks about which Mujahid says he tipped off Yemeni intelligence officials was the bombing of a group of Spanish tourists visiting the Balqis Temple in Maarib, in July 2007.
“How could it be that I informed the National Security Bureau and the Political Security Organisation but the operation still took place?”
The suicide attack killed 10 people in total, including eight Spanish tourists.
BEFORE THE ATTACK
According to Mujahid, deputy head of the National Security Bureau Ammar Mohammad Abdullah Saleh, nephew of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was made aware of the attack well before it took place.
"I was reporting to [Yemeni intelligence officers] minute-by-minute. I said ‘the car is ready and Nasir al-Wihayshi and Abu Hurayra [Qasim al Raymi] are here now’."
When Mujahid arrived at the scene just a few hours before the attack, and found Al-Qaeda leaders Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, along with a car packed with explosives, he was shocked.
AN EXPLOSION ROCKS THE BALQIS TEMPLE
Although Mujahid alleges that he stepped away from the Al-Qaeda leaders to once again call and inform his intelligence contacts, the suicide bombing was carried out unhindered a few hours later.
"There was a tremendous ringing inside my head. My whole body was in a lot of pain. You try to realise what’s happened, but it’s impossible. I could hardly move."
Al-Qaeda’s attack raised alarm bells for Western tourists in Yemen. Mujahid says he does not understand why it was not stopped.
A raid in August 2007 by Yemeni security forces killed a few Al-Qaeda members allegedly responsible for the attack on the Spanish tourists. However, according to Mujahid, the men he says planned the operation, such as Nasir al-Wihayshi, Qasim al-Raymi and others, were not targeted.
“I was a member of Al-Qaeda and I tell you truthfully that no person from Al-Qaeda could have acquired this type of information. But who is managing tourism in Yemen?”
Mujahid’s account also raises questions about the potential involvement of other figures in Yemeni intelligence. If his story is to be believed, his advance information about the attack was disregarded. Mujahid was also unable to answer how Al-Qaeda knew that Spanish tourists would be visiting the temple on that day.
ATTACK ON THE US EMBASSY
Only a year later, Mujahid says he saw further evidence regarding the role of Yemeni intelligence with regards to Al-Qaeda. That was after an attack against the US embassy in September 2008.
"I delivered them the information step-by-step until three days before the operation. I believe that the security agencies in Yemen wanted this operation to take place."
The only difference this time, Mujahid alleges, is that Ammar Saleh helped fund the operation and provide Al-Qaeda with the necessary weapons.
LEAD-UP TO THE ATTACK
According to Mujahid, in a meeting with Ammar Saleh months before the attack, Saleh was keen to keep Al-Qaeda functional despite Mujahid's claim that the fighters were running low on weaponry, particularly in the lead-up to the embassy attack.
"Ammar Saleh gave me a sum of money. I left for Taiz. He told to me stay for two days and then inform Abu Hurayra [Qasim al Raymi] to collect the materials [for the US embassy attack]."
Mujahid’s allegations raise serious questions about the role of Ammar Saleh, and even his uncle Ali Abdullah Saleh, and what role they could have played in the attack on the US embassy that killed 19 people, including several civilians.
Armoured vehicles pulled up to the entrance of the American embassy, carrying Al-Qaeda fighters dressed as Yemeni officers, before fighting ensued. Though no one from the embassy was hurt, several civilians and security guards at the gate were killed in the attack.
AN INVESTIGATION LEADS NOWHERE
According to FBI attaché Rick Schwein, who witnessed the attack and was part of the investigation afterward, information handed to the Yemenis from the American investigators did not offer any significant investigative leads.
“Complicity on the part of one or more members of the Yemeni government would be very disappointing, but it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising.”
But if Mujahid’s story were true, that would mean members of the Yemeni government wanted it that way.
YEMENI OFFICIALS’ COMPLICITY?
The portrayal of Yemen as a major front in the US-led “Global War on Terror” has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in military support and training for the Yemeni government.
“If Yemen didn’t have turmoil, I think the world wouldn’t notice Yemen considering how poor it is. Some might say that [Saleh] used Al-Qaeda to get money from the outside world.”
YEMENI POLITICAL ANALYST
There have long been questions surrounding how Al-Qaeda leaders were able to escape from prison and continue to operate freely to this day. Mujahid’s account of a possible connection with Saleh’s nephew provides one possible answer.
A FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN ENEMIES?
According to Mujahid, Ammar Saleh was the person he met with regularly to supply information on Al-Qaeda. Disturbing as Mujahid’s accusation that he received funds and materials for Al-Qaeda from Ammar Saleh may be, he has a particularly unique allegation.
"I heard many phone calls that took place between Ammar Saleh and Qasim al-Raymi about the arrival of some weapons and explosives to them as support.”
Mujahid is alleging that Ammar Saleh, as deputy head of the National Security Bureau, had a working relationship with with AQAP leader Qasim al-Raymi, supplying the organisation with money, and ignoring warnings of imminent attacks that claimed innocent lives. If those allegations prove true, then how involved was the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in the creation and operation of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?
APPROACHING THE CIA
Mujahid ended up feeling that his work as an informant was perhaps not as noble as he had once believed. He felt he had seen the uglier side of both the Yemeni government and Al-Qaeda, and decided to approach the CIA to tell them what he had experienced.
"[Ammar Saleh] told me, ‘If you wanted to reach out to the Americans, you should have come to me’.”
Unfortunately for Mujahid, it seems the CIA had informed the Yemeni authorities about Mujahid’s approach. He alleges they subsequently kidnapped and held him for over a week to make sure he did not go behind their backs again. With no other way out, Mujahid approached a lawyer and decided to make his story public.
Nacer Ait Tahar
Al Jazeera English