The house bin Laden built

WADI DOAN, Yemen — Osama bin Laden’s father’s house is a decrepit, two-story mud-brick building, situated here at the end of a long, unpaved road flanked by date palms and grazing camels in a village built up the sides of a steep canyon.

This village, deep in the heart of Yemen’s eastern desert, has become known as Osama Bin Laden’s “ancestral homeland” and the crumbling remains of the family home stand as a reminder of the Al Qaeda’s leaders connection to the country.

Now Yemen has become a primary focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts after a Yemeni group associated with Osama bin Laden’s organization claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

“Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula,” or AQAP, as the group has called itself on various militant Islamic websites, says it trained and equipped the Nigerian bomber in Yemen before he boarded the Detroit-bound flight in Amsterdam.

The detonator failed and passengers subdued the bomber, but the hunt is on in Yemen by CIA and U.S. Special Forces for clues as to how the bomber was purportedly radicalized and trained here. 

The bin Laden ancestral home is in Wadi Doan, Yemen.
(Paul Stephens/GlobalPost)

The long trail to understanding bin Laden’s connection to Yemen begins in some sense in Wadi Doan. Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammad, left the village before World War II to make his fortune in the Saudi construction industry.

Mohammad died when his private jet crashed over the Asir province in Saudi Arabia in 1966. Osama is believed to have spent very little time in Yemen, according to research by author Steven Coll. But Osama bin Laden has long expressed deep emotional connections to the region and to his father’s ancestral land.

Al Qaeda is not new to Yemen, nor is Islamic militancy. The country has a long history of producing militants to fight abroad, and Al Qaeda carried out one of its most significant attacks against the U.S., the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen’s southern port city, in 2000.

But experts on Yemen say that the roots of AQAP have more to do with the current internal political and security situation in Yemen, and the exploitation of Yemeni’s weaknesses by foreign Al Qaeda operatives, than any loose familial connection that Osama bin Laden has to the country.

In recent years, the terrorist threat in Yemen has grown, as a new generation of leaders has developed AQAP with some guidance, it is believed, from Al Qaeda’s main base in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the past two years, a large number of Saudi, Pakistani and Afghan militants have fled crackdowns on extremists in the Kingdom and escalating fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and resettled in Yemen. With its large swaths of unmonitored territory and weak central government, Yemen makes an ideal home base for foreign extremist like Abdulmatallab, the alleged bomber, and those who are said to have trained him.

“I think that the relative lawlessness of Yemen opens up safe havens,” said Gregory Gause III, an expert in Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont. “And the relatively permissive atmosphere [Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh took toward Salafi types, when he wanted to use them against leftists in the 90s and now against the Houthis [Shiite rebels in the north] has provided some political space."

Yemen, the poorest nation in the Arab world, is currently battling a Shiite rebellion in the north, an increasingly violent separatist insurgency in the south, widespread malnutrition, a looming water crisis, a failing economy and large numbers of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia, all of which threaten the stability of the central government.

In December, in two of the largest offensives against Al Qaeda in Yemen in years, American-trained Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected Al Qaeda hideouts around Yemen, allegedly killing dozens of militants, said Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. The U.S. has acknowledged providing intelligence and firepower for the strikes, and Special Forces have provided training to the Yemeni army since 2002.

U.S. military commander General David Petraus said Friday that the U.S. will likely double its military aid to Yemen, which is now about $70 million for the next 18 months, according to Reuters.

But observers inside and outside Yemen believe that the Yemeni government may not have the strength, or the political will, to deal with extremists who have found refuge in Yemen’s lawless tribal regions, areas were the government has little sway.

“Unlike the Saudis, who have a pretty good internal security force, and thus, when they began to see Al Qaeda as a domestic threat could deal with them ruthlessly, Yemen will have a harder time,” said Gause.

In the past, President Saleh has used extremist elements in Yemen as a card in a complex political game he plays to retain power, said Ali Saif Hassan, a political analyst and director of the Sana’a-based Political Development Forum. He has relied on and supported fundamentalist groups in Yemen since the 60s, and battled against them when it’s been politically expedient, he said.

Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, thinks that explaining the rise of Al Qaeda in Yemen by relying solely on bin Laden’s father’s ties to the country, by referring to the country as his “homeland,” is misleading.

“It does a disservice, by reducing the threat of Al Qaeda in Yemen to a cliche, as if that one phrase encapsulated all that one ever needed to know about Yemen,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen cites the weakness and corruption of the Yemeni prisons, where Al Qaeda members have been held, but later escaped or released, as a major contributing factor to the rise of the local Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. It was a jailbreak in 2006 by the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and 22 other militants, that lead to the formation of the group.

AQAP has grown significantly since then, and it merged with the Saudi Arabian branch of Al Qaeda last year. The organization has carried out multiple attacks against soft targets in Yemen in the past two years and a car-bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2008 that killed 16. The attempted bombing of the Northwest flight, if it was indeed planned by AQAP, represents the organization’s growing capacity for international attacks.

For policy makers, though, the challenge in Yemen will be not only battling the powerful extremist elements in the country, but also addressing the numerous crises that have weakened the beleaguered government and strengthened AQAP.

U.S. involvement in Yemen may also motivate terrorist groups in the region. Al-Shabbab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgent group in Somalia, announced on Friday that it would send fighters to Yemen to work against the central government, according to news reports.

U.S. policy tends to ignore the nuance of the situation in Yemen, Johnsen, the Princeton expert said. “By focusing on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of nearly every other challenge and by linking all of its aid to this single issue, the U.S. has ensured that it will always exist. There is a great and growing fear in Yemen that the country would be forgotten and neglected in the absence of the threat from Al Qaeda,” he said.

For many here in Yemen, the threat posed by the rise of Al Qaeda can seem just as distant as it often seems in the U.S. It is another problem in the long list of growing crises that the fragile country faces as it struggles to avoid becoming another failed state.

On a recent December afternoon, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral village, Al Rubat, was quiet. For the past 70 years, Mohamed bin Laden’s house has been used as a school and a rented apartment. Today, it has fallen into semi-abandoned disrepair. A distant uncle of bin Laden’s still lives upstairs in a small, unlit apartment, a recluse caretaker of an imagined past.

“Osama bin Laden wasn’t born here, he didn’t grow up here, he’s never even visited,” said Ali Abdullah, whose family has lived in Al Rubat for generations. “We don’t have anything to do with him, or what he stands for.”

Abdullah’s neighbor, Said Mohammed Saleh, said the town is too small to concern itself with international affairs, Al Qaeda or the whereabouts of its infamous and elusive grandson.

“You want to know our major problem? We don’t have enough teachers, the date palms are sick and there’s too much trash in the streets,” he said, gesturing toward a three-foot pile of pink plastic bags. “These are the things we think about here.”