Hebdo outrage hatched in Yemen's bandit country

Hebdo outrage hatched in Yemen's bandit country
Said Kouachi reportedly vowed to kill Charlie Hebdo cartoonists while training with al-Qaeda in Yemen's Marib province, an area of shadowy tribesman and extremist proving grounds. Al-Araby al-Jadeed reports.
5 min read
13 January, 2015
Marib is home to an ancient temple, as well as unruly tribes [EyeOn]

In the deserts of Yemen's Marib province sometime around 2011, a Frenchman, Said Kouachi, made a vow to the al-Qaeda militants training him.

Pointing to a "hit-list" containing the names of many of Charlie Hebdo's editorial team, he declared: "I will be the one to kill them."

On 7 January of this year, Said and his brother Cherif, armed with assault rifles, walked into the offices of the French satirical magazine in Paris, and shot dead 12 people.

     The tribes feel that the Houthis want to invade... but when the Marib tribes fight the Houthis, they find al-Qaeda are fighting with them.

"Tell them we are from al-Qaeda in Yemen," the brothers told the driver of a car they had hijacked in their escape. Cherif later told a French television reporter by telephone that he had been trained by the group.

Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists were on the hit-list of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, the official name of al-Qaeda's wing in Yemen) after the publication of several cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in 2011 and 2012.

The story of Said Kaouchi's vow was relayed to al-Araby al-Jadeed by the Yemeni journalist and AQAP expert, Ali al-Moshki. His sources within the militant organisation told him that Kouachi's trip was set up by the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, later killed by a US drone strike in September 2011.

Read more about AQAP, and how it has been affected by the Islamic State group

Both brothers visited Yemen several times between 2009 and 2013, according to reports from the Reuters news agency. Sometimes they travelled together, sometimes alone, but other details about their visits are unknown.

What does keep cropping up is Marib. The mainly desert province, the home of the Queen of Sheba in antiquity and the furthest a Roman penetrated into Arabia before being defeated, is dominated by heavily armed Yemeni tribes. The state's presence is largely limited to its energy installations, often targeted by those same disgruntled tribesmen.

The province has a reputation for being a haven for bandits, and its tribal sheikhs repeatedy attack the province's power stations and hijack trucks carrying goods though to Sanaa.

One such tribal leader, Kalfoot, arguably one of Yemen's most hated men, invited film crews to the aftermath of an attack on a pipeline, presenting demands that jobs be provided and justice be served for the death of a relative.

Others suspect involvement from corrupt politicians, who are said to pay the tribes to attack energy installations, thereby weakening the government. The tribes are then paid by the state to allow access to the sites for engineers coming to make repairs.

The tribesmen are however content to share their space with groups such as AQAP. Kalfoot's pipeline attack was in Wadi Abida, an area where Yemeni intelligence officials allege the Kouachi brothers trained.

"Marib is a main base for foreign fighters," said Moshki. "After the [Yemeni] army's campaign against AQAP in Abyan [a southern Yemeni province] in late 2011, they moved to Marib.

   Kalfoot invited journalists to film a recent pipeline attack.

"The tribes in Marib are more sympathetic to al-Qaeda, because the state is doing nothing for them."

If the Kouachis are not a one-off, it appears this uneasy alliance has allowed al-Qaeda to create training grounds in the region. The group is also known to have held high-value western captives in Marib.

This is not to say that the tribesmen are al-Qaeda, who are careful not to rile them.

"They say al-Qaeda are people with a certain ideology [but] they don't harm them, and don't cause them any problems directly," said Adel Shamsan, a Yemeni journalist who regularly travels to Marib. "When they are fearful, they ask al-Qaeda to leave, and they say that they do," he said.

Marib's importance to militant groups is also implicit in the number of US drone strikes in the province.

But due to the nature of AQAP, which is constantly on the move, intelligence used when preparing drone strikes can be out of date, and many civilians have been killed.

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Most notably, the province's deputy governor, Jabir al-Shabwani, was killed in one such strike in 2010 – he was on his way to convince al-Qaeda members to hand themselves over to the government.

"There's a lot of fear and terror, especially from those who've seen strikes before," said Shamsan. "Now they're worried about what might happen to them."

Marib's appearance as a bastion for AQAP is now being used by the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia movement who have taken over large parts of northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, as a pretext to possibly enter Marib.

The Houthis are virulently anti-US, but they are also locked in battle with AQAP, and say the province is threatened by an al-Qaeda takeover.

"If official authorities do not assume their responsibilities, [we] will act to support the honourable people of Marib," Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi said in a televised speech on January 3.

The Houthis have not yet risked full-blown conflict in Marib. Thanks to the energy resources in the province, the tribes can hold the rest of the country to ransom.

However, if the Houthis do enter, along with the Yemeni state that the former rebel movement is now integrating itself into, then, according to Shamsan, the Marib tribes may find themselves allying with al-Qaeda.

"The tribes feel that the Houthis want to invade... but when the Marib tribes fight the Houthis, they find al-Qaeda are fighting with them."

Regardless, it is within this power struggle in one of Yemen's most lawless regions that the Kouachis - and possibly others like them - trained in preparation for their assault on Paris.