Days of Reckoning

Faced with rebels, refugees, and al Qaeda, the nation is on the brink of a new beginning—or deeper divisions.

This story appears in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The man was crucified, Um Mohammed said, her black eyes peering out through the slit in her black niqab. She was a widow in her 30s with two small children. Fleeing danger and chaos, she found herself this morning in the faculty room of an elementary school in the Crater neighborhood of Aden, a port city in south Yemen. Her children—Ibrahim, ten, and Fatima, seven—both sat cross-legged on wooden chairs beside their mother and shyly watched me.

The school had been converted into a center for displaced people—some 530 men, women, and children on three floors overlooking a litter-filled dirt courtyard. Undeterred by the squalor and fetid heat, young boys kicked soccer balls in the corridors. Dozens of new arrivals waited to be registered by a volunteer tapping their names into a dusty laptop.

Um Mohammed was too frightened to divulge her real name but not too frightened to speak her mind. She showed me a cell phone video she had made three weeks earlier, this past January, during a trip home to Zinjibar to retrieve some belongings. It showed a bearded man hanging from a lamppost, his hands nailed to a wooden crossbeam. Speaking in a shrill voice muffled by the black cloth in front of her face, she said that the man, an al Qaeda operative, had been accused of spying for the Yemeni government. “He hung there for three days. It was a warning to the people: Every traitor should be killed like this.”

Other countries in the Middle East suffered more violence than Yemen during the Arab Spring—Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, Bashar al Assad’s Syria—but this country of 24 million has emerged from its popular revolution in a deeply precarious condition. In the far north, al Houthis, a Shiite-based political movement, waged a six-year insurrection against the Yemeni government and now controls a large swath of territory—though its leaders have signaled a desire to participate in a national dialogue. In the far south, Aden and its surrounding districts are under siege by al Hirak, a separatist movement that wants independence for the region.

And east of Aden, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is mounting a campaign of insurgency and terror. It was formed in 2009 through a merger of Yemeni and Saudi branches of al Qaeda and gained force during the popular uprising that convulsed Yemen between January and November 2011.

After mass protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign, the United States and Persian Gulf nations pressed the weakened leader to step down. With the government in tatters and the army divided and demoralized, al Qaeda began recruiting new followers with promises of glory fighting the U.S.-backed army. In May 2011 al Qaeda militants drove government forces out of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province, a 150-mile-long sliver of mountain redoubts and strategic coastline along the Arabian Sea.

More than 130,000 refugees from Abyan have poured into Aden during the past year. AQAP extremists now control parts of three provinces and have carried out terrorist attacks in other regions, including the oil-rich eastern province of Hadramawt and the capital, Sanaa. Islamist gunmen patrol the region in trucks draped in black banners that proclaim, “There is no other God but Allah.”

So far the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars arming and training Yemen’s Central Security Forces to fight al Qaeda as well as carrying out air strikes against militant leaders. In September 2011 a drone attack killed Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki, the U.S.-born militant who galvanized Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber.” This past May the CIA used a Saudi double agent to foil an AQAP plot to blow up a U.S. airliner. Al Qaeda struck back soon after, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Sanaa, killing more than 90 soldiers.

Besides al Qaeda and the separatist factions, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi—the former vice president who was elected president in February 2012 for a two-year transition period—faces dire domestic problems. With a per capita income of $1,140, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. Over half a million desperate Somali immigrants are burdening the already overstrained economy. Yemen’s water is running out, and its oil supplies are expected to be exhausted by 2022. Its population is both young and growing; unemployed youths are a threat to stability. Hadi has moved boldly to solidify control over the military, sideline Saleh-family politicians, and begin a national dialogue on civil society, but his hold on power remains tenuous.

In the face of these grave challenges, what kind of society will take root in Yemen? Will it become a modern nation, grounded in the rule of law? Or an even more anarchic state, torn by tribal, ethnic, and religious conflict and a threat to Western security?

Yemen has not always been so blighted. The Greek-Roman geographer Ptolemy called the region Eudaimon Arabia—Happy Arabia—and marveled at its stability and prosperity. Pre-Islamic Sabaean rulers expanded their empire through the Horn of Africa and in the second century A.D. built architectural wonders such as the skyscraper palace of Ghumdan, celebrated by a medieval Arab poet as “twenty floors wound with a turban of white cloud and girdled in alabaster.”

After Islam spread to the region in the 630s, Happy Arabia fluctuated between periods of unity and deep division. In the 19th century the Ottomans in the north and later the British in the south tried to impose their authority, only to be confounded by Yemen’s defiant tribes and its geography—narrow valleys, dizzying mountain ranges, and the Empty Quarter, one of the world’s most inhospitable deserts, along its border with Saudi Arabia.

Saleh—a barely educated, wily army officer— was the latest leader to try to tame Yemen. When he rose to power in 1978, he ruled North Yemen; 12 years later he oversaw the unification of the north and the south. He forged ties with tribal sheikhs and Islamic leaders, buying loyalty with bribes and patronage. He cozied up to Saddam Hussein (Yemenis dubbed him “Little Saddam”), and after 9/11 he made overtures to the U.S. He also packed the military and intelligence services with family members and allowed corruption to infuse every facet of Yemeni life. In February 2012 Saleh stepped down, signing a deal that divided the government between his party and a coalition of five opposition groups. Saleh, his kin, and his security forces were guaranteed immunity from prosecution. Now in Sanaa, he continues to stir up trouble—inciting loyalists, even denouncing the new government as “thugs” on the TV stations owned by his party.

“Qat is better than honey,” exclaimed Abdullah al Kholani, 60, with a grin. “We would stop eating before we would stop chewing.” Al Kholani was a squat man with a red-and-white kaffiyeh bundled at a jaunty angle atop his head. He had deep-set eyes, a hawk nose, and a snaggletooth that extended over his lower lip. His hands were rough and stained green from plucking qat leaves. His beige vest and off-white abaya were in need of a wash. He was “a man of the soil,” al Kholani told me, “and proud of it.” He spoke Arabic in guttural, high-pitched bursts that my interpreter found barely coherent. That’s because the farmer’s mouth was stuffed with qat.

Al Kholani led me from the stone house where he and his wife had raised their six children along a bone-dry irrigation ditch to a clearing amid a jungle of slender, light brown trees. We paused to admire one that rose to about 40 feet, with a trunk as big as that of a medium-size oak, its extended branches thick with small, oval leaves. “It’s about 200 years old,” al Kholani said.

We were in Wadi Dhahr, a canyon northwest of Sanaa lined with vertiginous sandstone walls. Dar al Hajr, the summer retreat of the last ruling imam of Yemen, a marvel of stained-glass windows and cool stone passageways, rose on an outcropping behind us. Al Kholani, whose family has farmed qat here for generations, boasted that his leaf was the strongest. “You chew that, and you will be awake for three days,” he said, laughing, as he offered me a clump of leaves from the ancient tree. They were bitter and brought on an intense thirst, which I quenched with a long swig of mineral water.

Al Kholani cultivates several acres of qat in two plots. He sells two harvests a year to a wholesaler who distributes the leaves to markets across Sanaa. The crop brings about $4,000 a year— nearly four times the average per capita income. And there’s a side benefit: Al Kholani gets to chew as much qat as he wants, starting early in the morning and continuing late into the night. “Qat is much better than whiskey, much better than hashish, because it keeps you working,” he said, shoving another fistful of leaves into his mouth. “It gives you energy. I chew qat when I don’t have any rials in my pocket, and it keeps me happy. If I don’t have something to eat, no problem.” Al Kholani told me that he ignored the turmoil in Sanaa last year. “I care only about my farm,” he said. But because of the protests and gun battles, “people were not chewing as much as usual, and business was bad. Inshallah, it will get better.”

At least ten million Yemenis—40 percent of the population—chew qat four or more hours a day, according to surveys. The activity is a drain on income and, despite al Kholani’s insistence that it keeps you working, productivity. Qat contains an alkaloid that breaks down to form a chemical closely related to adrenaline. It imparts an urge to talk and a general sense of well-being, but if consumed in excess, as I learned, it can make you fidgety, restless, sick to your stomach, and unable to sleep.

The strongest argument in qat’s favor is that it can play a mediating role. A Western diplomat in Sanaa told me that rivals often chewed together during the uprising against Saleh. “You’d go to a qat chew, and somebody from the faction of Ali Mohsin, somebody from Saleh’s Republican Guard, who maybe was his cousin, would be there.” (Ali Mohsin al Ahmar is a powerful general who defected to the opposition.)

Some of al Kholani’s qat goes to the Cairo Street market in northwest Sanaa, a raucous bazaar covered by a corrugated metal roof. In the early afternoon the souk is jammed with people from all walks of life: soldiers, traders, professionals, civil servants, students. Walid al Rami, my government minder, a qat addict with a bleary-eyed look, searched for small, soft leaves and reddish stems—“signs of sweetness and potency,” he said. He bought a bundle for the equivalent of $25, enough for the night’s chew.

About 40 percent of Yemen’s dwindling water resources go to qat irrigation. Ever since the river that ran through al Kholani’s farm suddenly dried up, he has had to draw more than 10,000 gallons a month from a deep well to irrigate his qat. In some parts of Sanaa water pipes are dry, and supplies have to be trucked in daily.

Adel al Shujaa runs the Yemeni Anti-Qat Organization in Sanaa. “Those who are against qat nowadays are very few,” he said, before rattling off a list of the leaf ’s negative effects: appetite suppression, malnutrition, a weakened immune system. Al Shujaa has been lobbying the parliament to draft anti-qat legislation, but after a decade of lonely work his only success has been to persuade a single qat farmer to grow coffee and other substitute crops. “I am optimistic that we will succeed at the end of the day,” he said. “Christ Jesus, peace be upon him, had very few followers at the beginning, but now his followers are more than two billion.”

In Sanaa’s Old City a camel groaned in the semidarkness of a grottolike shop near Bab al Yemen, the only remaining stone archway of the seven that once sealed this 2,500-year-old city from the outside world. With a rope harness tied around its head and hump, the camel was plodding around a cast-iron mill, grinding mustard seeds into oil. It was 8:30 a.m., hours before the start of business in the ancient quarter of the capital, and many residents were still sleeping off the night’s qat chew.

The Old City has diminished in size over the past century, and electrification and sewage projects have brought it into the modern world. But in many respects, it remains unchanged, with residential towers of fired brick and alabaster clustered around markets for gold, jewelry, textiles, fresh produce, spices. In a passageway two women wearing traditional Sanaani clothing—body-draping abayas printed with white, black, and red geometric designs—parted to let me pass. An elderly man with coal-blackened eyelids and a wispy white beard slid by, a curved dagger, or jambiya,thrust into his brocaded belt. Not long ago jambiyas showed men’s status as tribesmen, judges, and direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad; each group wore jambiyas with markings that indicated its caste. But Saleh elevated the social status of shopkeepers and tradesmen, a politically astute move that broadened his base of support.

“We still love Saleh,” Abdullah, the owner of the mustard-seed mill, told me, proudly pointing to framed photographs of the former president that cover the grimy walls of his shop. Along with Saleh and almost everyone else in the Old City, Abdullah is a Zaidi, an adherent of a moderate sect of Shiite Islam found mainly in Yemen. But commonality of religion only partly explains the allegiance to Saleh.

Traditionally in Yemen, tightly knit tribal groupings have served as states within the state, with arsenals of weapons and a parallel court system ruling on everything from property disputes to murder. Saleh derived support from his alliance with Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar, the “sheikh of sheikhs,” who led the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, one of Yemen’s two major tribal groupings, along with the Bakil.

In recent decades education, urbanization, and exposure to the outside world have weakened tribal influences. Many tribesmen no longer unquestionably accept the supreme sheikh’s authority, and demands for basic rights and freedoms are growing. In March 2011 after the senior al Ahmar died, his sons rose up against Saleh following a massacre of protesters. The Republican Guard and tribal militias engaged in heavy gun battles in Sanaa, signaling the beginning of Saleh’s collapse.

If only the calm and restraint of the Old City were the face of Yemen. Today the country’s zeitgeist is more accurately embodied in lawless, unstable Aden, the city where al Qaeda suicide bombers struck the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. To avoid being kidnapped on roads stalked by mercenary tribesmen and al Qaeda insurgents, I traveled there by plane.

The stench of decay and burning trash filled the torpid air of the once cosmopolitan port city, set on a peninsula of volcanic hills overlooking the Gulf of Aden. Sanitation workers had been on strike for two weeks, and mountains of refuse, picked at by donkeys and goats, lined the roadsides. Graffiti covered the walls—INDEPENDENCE NOW; TELL THE SANAA REGIME TO STOP KILLING THE SOUTH PEOPLE—and flags from the long-defunct People’s Republic of South Yemen flew at almost every intersection. Youths with AK-47s manned roadblocks of bricks and concrete in the Maalla neighborhood, a separatist stronghold.

Nasser Saleh Attawil, 62, is the secretary general of a moderate wing of al Hirak, southern Yemen’s separatist movement. It was too dangerous to meet at his apartment in Maalla (a teenage separatist had been shot by a sniper in the area the previous day, igniting violent protests), so we talked in the shade of an umbrella at the deserted Elephant Bay Beach Resort. Attawil, a former South Yemen Air Force officer educated in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, complained that Saleh had given away southern land to northern allies and siphoned oil wealth from southern Hadramawt. Since unification in 1990 and the civil war that followed, Attawil said, “our state, wealth, and identity have all been lost.” Like many southerners, he regards north Yemenis with condescension. “We don’t carry jambiyas here,” he said with a mocking laugh.

Attawil founded his group five years ago as a peaceful movement dedicated to achieving more self-governance for the south, such as the ability to levy taxes and control revenues. But a faction of radical separatists, emboldened by the collapse of central authority, is demanding full independence and, reportedly financed by Iran, has mounted frequent protests and carried out attacks against Yemeni security forces. There have been reports about collaboration between the separatists and al Qaeda, though these seem to be government propaganda aimed at delegitimizing al Hirak’s grievances.

While waiting out a sandstorm at the airport in Aden, I fell into conversation with Hussein Othman, a burly 38-year-old sheikh from the al Arwal tribe in eastern Abyan. “I am from the place where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began,” he told me. He divides his time between Abyan and Sanaa, where he works as a human resources manager for a journalists’ cooperative. He enrolled his 16-year-old son in a school in Sanaa to educate the teenager away from al Qaeda’s influence.

Othman is trying to mediate between the government and the Islamic militants, many of whom he grew up with or are the children of members of his clan. But the talks aren’t going anywhere. Al Qaeda, he said, has demanded that the government enforce sharia and withdraw all remaining troops from the province.

As we talked, Othman toyed with his .32 pistol, which he carries for protection whenever he returns to Abyan. Some insurgents believe he’s allied with the government, but Othman insisted that he’s neutral. “Tribesmen and Bedouin are always affected by religion. And there is poverty,” he said, explaining the militants’ appeal. Abyan is one of Yemen’s poorest, least developed provinces. “Al Qaeda breeds in this environment,” Othman said. As in Afghanistan and Pakistan, drone attacks on suspected militants have sometimes killed civilians, inflaming sentiment against the U.S. and persuading men to join al Qaeda. “The militants are chased by drones. The people see them as heroes,” he said.

Just over a hundred miles northwest of Aden is Taizz, the city that, as the heart of the revolution, stirred hopes for a very different kind of Yemen. Taizz had emerged alongside trade routes to the Red Sea coast to become a center of commerce, industry, and education. Yet this least tribal, most liberal of Yemen’s cities was marginalized by Saleh, and it languished. The first protests took place here in February 2011. A year later protest marches were still held every Friday following afternoon prayers. One Friday I watched thousands of men, women, and children waving flags in support of the Syrian opposition and flashing V-for-victory signs.

In Garden City—a pleasant compound of cafés, playgrounds, and an amusement park in the shadow of the Qalat al Qahira, a multiwinged Ottoman citadel perched on a precipice—I met one of the leaders of Taizz’s pro-democracy movement, which is now struggling to remain relevant. Belkhis al Abdeli is 31, though at first glance she could pass for a teenager. She’s tiny, with chipmunk cheeks and dark eyes framed by a green hijab, the head scarf that, unlike the niqab, leaves the face exposed. Nudge al Abdeli onto the subject of politics—or women’s rights—and the warm smile disappears. Her eyes flash, and her hand stabs the air as she speaks. “I hate the niqab,” she said, adding that she has never accepted the strict social codes that relegate Yemeni women to second-class status. Women, she said, should have the choice to cover their faces or leave them exposed—“but most women in Yemen are not given the choice.” Al Abdeli is unmarried and unapologetic. “My relatives say, ‘You have no chance of getting married anymore.’ It doesn’t bother me.” She often travels on her own, shrugging off disapproving looks.

By almost all indicators—health, education, and economic opportunity—women fare poorly in Yemen. It has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and 60 percent of Yemeni women are illiterate. Infant mortality rates are also among the world’s worst, attributed to the lack of prenatal and postnatal health care. Unlike men, women cannot easily get divorced, and they have limited property and inheritance rights. The country ranks dead last among 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.

Al Abdeli is an assistant professor of accounting at a university in Taizz, and she enjoys more freedoms than most of her peers. She credits this to growing up in Taizz and having an open-minded father who “did not go to university but is knowledgeable about the world.” She is also a poet who for years openly expressed her loathing for Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. “I put some of my dreams in my poetry and implanted them in the minds of my students,” she said. When Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, al Abdeli had new hope. “I felt definitely we will have a revolution here too. From the first day I wanted to join the protests, but my father advised me not to. He said, ‘The regime is bloody.’ So I went a few days later.”

In a tent camp called Freedom Square, al Abdeli was elected to the leadership council. In April 2011 she started her own movement, the Forum for Change, which grew to include hundreds of members. She organized seminars and led demonstrators through Taizz’s streets after Friday prayers. A fiery orator, she spoke passionately of the need to eliminate corruption and patronage and guarantee equal rights for women.

The mood turned ugly on the night of May 29, when unidentified attackers (who many believe were Saleh’s security forces) burned down hundreds of tents in Freedom Square and killed 50 protesters. After the massacre the area’s most powerful sheikh, Hamoud al Mikhlafi, announced that he would serve as the protesters’ protector, and hundreds of militiamen came to Taizz from rural areas to defend them.

Republican Guards and other pro-Saleh forces attempted to crush the revolt. During that time al Abdeli huddled with her parents and siblings in the basement of the family home while mortar rounds and artillery shells crashed around them.

Now the city that has long been considered Yemen’s least tribal finds itself beholden to al Mikhlafi and his brethren. His militias control many streets, and his membership in al Islah, the country’s main Islamic party, which includes everyone from Muslim Brotherhood moderates to ultraconservative Salafists, has given the Islamists new prominence: At the Friday afternoon rally I attended, the only speakers were Islamic party members. Secular democrats like al Abdeli are out of the power structure, but she still goes to Freedom Square several times a week. “We wanted a real revolution,” she said animatedly.

Leaving Garden City, I drove at dusk to al Mikhlafi’s hilltop villa, pocked by bullet holes from last year’s fighting. A dozen of his guards were patrolling the street in front with AK-47s. Al Mikhlafi was chewing qat in a smoke-filled reception room on the ground floor, crammed with about a hundred qat-chewing tribesmen sitting in two rows facing one another, with their backs to the white walls of the narrow chamber. Weapons were propped up against the walls, and the blue-and-russet carpet was strewn with qat leaves and stems and overflowing ashtrays. Al Mikhlafi led me into a private room across a courtyard to talk.

He had been a security officer in Saleh’s government, responsible for gathering intelligence on the regime’s foes. “I gave him advice—to consult more with the people, to institute real democracy—but he ignored it,” said the sheikh, a handsome man with a patchy black beard, soft eyes, and a helmet of curly gray hair that accentuated the squareness of his head. Al Mikhlafi called himself “a defender of democracy.” (He is a cousin of Tawakkol Karman, the Nobel Peace Prize winner.) But the secular democrats of Taizz say that his allegiance to the Islamic party and his pattern of resolving conflicts through displays of force suggest that building a civil society is not foremost on his agenda.

When I was in Taizz, it was a city very much on edge. Men wearing camouflage jackets had recently ambushed and killed a 29-year-old American teacher as he drove to his job at a Swedish-run English-language school and women’s education center. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the murder, alleging—falsely—that he was a Christian missionary. It was the first time AQAP had carried out a terrorist act in Taizz—and it served as a sign of heightened danger throughout Yemen. Al Abdeli and her pro-democracy movement hope to build a new society based on transparency and the rule of law. But al Mikhlafi and those like him are in charge now. Yemen still belongs to the men with guns.