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Resurrecting The Jihad in Yemen

Why is the man who masterminded al-Qaeda’s first attack against the U.S. now working as a security official in Yemen?

The city of Mukalla. FAWAZ AL-HAIDARI/AFP / Getty Images

SANAA, Yemen — Last summer a man with an artificial hand walked into a security office in eastern Yemen clutching a letter. This was his second attempt. Months earlier, in late 2012 shortly after President Ali Abdullah Salih’s government collapsed in the face of widespread protests, he had walked into the same office with a letter requesting that he be named deputy security director for Mukalla, a large port city on Yemen’s southern coast.

That time, security officers had ignored him. They knew exactly who he was and they wanted nothing to do with him, according to one of the officials who saw the letter. But this time the man with the missing left hand was better prepared. He had lowered his sights, asking only to be named “assistant” to the security director, and lined up support in the capital, Sanaa. The local officials had no choice. They had to give him a job. Jamal al-Nahdi was now a security officer.

According to security agents, members of parliament, and government officials similar scenes have taken place across Yemen in recent months. But Nahdi’s case stands out for his personal history. Two decades before he walked into the security office in Mukalla, Nahdi masterminded al-Qaeda’s first attack on the United States.

Like hundreds of other Yemenis of his generation, Nahdi had traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, and toward the end of the war he joined Osama bin Laden’s new organization. Not long after he returned home, in December 1992, bin Laden tapped him for a job.

Bin Laden had already abandoned Saudi Arabia in frustration over the royal family’s growing ties to the U.S. in the wake of the first Gulf War and eventually settled on a farm in Sudan, where he could keep tabs on the shifting politics of the Middle East. Brooding in his self-imposed exile, bin Laden didn’t like what he was seeing. The American soldiers that had flooded into Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein showed no signs of leaving. Bin Laden considered the peninsula holy ground, and he viewed the soldiers continued presence as part of a U.S. conspiracy to take over the region.

When the U.S. dispatched troops to Somalia in December 1992, as part of Operation Restore Hope, some of the Marines used Aden as a staging ground. Bin Laden had seen enough. Convinced that the U.S. was once again using a war as an excuse to station troops on the Arabian Peninsula, he opted for force. It would be nine more years before most Americans knew his name, but bin Laden had made his choice. He was at war with the U.S.

On Dec. 29, 1992, Nahdi put bin Laden’s plan into motion. Nahdi wanted a pair of simultaneous bombings: one at the Aden Mövenpick hotel and another at a second resort hotel, the Gold Mohur, where his intelligence suggested the Marines were staying. Nahdi and an assistant planted a bomb at the Gold Mohur and then moved across town to the Mövenpick. But as he was laying the charges something went wrong and the bomb detonated prematurely, ripping off most of his left hand.

Minutes later the bomb at the Gold Mohur went off on schedule, tearing through the hotel and killing two people. But Nahdi had picked the wrong hotel. The Marines weren’t there and his bomb managed to kill only a tourist and a local hotel employee. Al-Qaeda’s first attack on the U.S. was a dud.

At the time, hardly anyone noticed the failed attempt; it was just one more explosion in a violent country. The whole incident would have been little more than a footnote in the prehistory of America’s war with al-Qaeda if the players had remained in the past. But more than two decades after he planted those bombs, Nahdi, the man who planned al-Qaeda’s first attack on the U.S., has reemerged and this time he is ostensibly fighting for the other side.

Although it is unclear to what degree Nahdi’s views on violent jihad have evolved over the past two decades, his new position — as a high-ranking security officer in Yemen’s Interior Ministry — raises questions as to the extent that jihadis and al-Qaeda sympathizers have infiltrated Yemen’s security services at the same time the U.S. has been pouring millions into the country in an effort to combat the terrorist group.

When contacted by BuzzFeed, Nahdi said he was doing a great job confronting insecurity and denouncing al-Qaeda. But he refused to discuss the 1992 bombings. “I’m now a colonel in the Interior Ministry and was appointed as an assistant to the director of security for Mukalla,” he said.

Nor is Nahdi the only militant to find a second career as a Yemeni security official. In the two and a half years since Salih stepped down, Yemen has been in the midst of a messy military transition that appears to have been exploited by elements of the old regime helping jihadi sympathizers secure jobs within Yemen’s security establishment.

With limited domestic support, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the new Yemeni president, accepted help from all sides. He welcomed U.S. advice and aid which had dried up during the bloodiest days of the uprising. (Aid that had dipped to $147 million in 2011 more than doubled when Hadi took office in 2012.) At the same time, he formed a coalition government with local Islamists, handing them several coveted government portfolios. And, perhaps most importantly, Hadi retained questionable elements of the old regime, which the U.S. has long suspected of combating al-Qaeda in public and coddling them in private.

One of the most controversial of these holdovers is a 68-year-old general named Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. For years, Ahmar was the regime’s iron fist, a trusted member of Salih’s inner circle who kept the president’s domestic enemies at bay by acting as unofficial conduit between the military and jihadis. In 1994, he recruited dozens of veterans from Afghanistan to fight the socialists during a brief but bloody civil war. Six years later, U.S. investigators wondered if some those same men had been involved in the attack on the USS Cole, which was attacked by al-Qaeda as it refueled in Aden in October 2000, leaving 17 sailors dead. But in March 2011, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Ahmar defected from Salih’s government, and has since remade himself as an indispensable ally to the new Yemeni president. As helpful as Ahmar has been to Hadi in offsetting other elements of the old regime, the general also brings with him a significant amount of baggage.

There are fears that Ahmar is once again recruiting militants and jihadi sympathizers, only this time giving them official positions within Yemen’s various security and military agencies. According to Abdullah al-Maqtari, the head of the Yemeni parliament’s state budget and final accounting committee, the number of new positions is somewhere around 200,000. But neither he nor anyone else in the government knows if that is accurate — there is a long-held practice of inflating numbers so generals can pocket the extra salaries of these so-called “ghost employees.”

What is known, is that at least a few thousand recruits do exist, and they have been tasked with things like protecting government buildings and working as prison guards. Their incorporation into Yemen’s security services has coincided with a rise in attacks and prison breaks in Yemen.

One recent prison break, on Feb. 13, freed at least 19 al-Qaeda fighters. According to a Reuters report, which confirmed similar accounts in the local media, Interior Ministry officials knew about the planned escape two months before it happened, yet did nothing to prevent it. Al-Qaeda tells a similar story. In a video released on March 29 to commemorate the return of the escaped prisoners, an al-Qaeda figure claims that the men were aided by officials within the prison.

Over the past few years, the U.S. has refocused its attention on Yemen in a attempt to combat al-Qaeda, increasing aid and ramping up drone strikes. But at the same time elements of the Yemeni government appear to be playing a double game, welcoming U.S. aid with one hand and helping militants with the other.

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