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Search for world's most dangerous man leads authorities to Yemen

By Solly Granatstein
Rock Center

Osama bin Laden may be lying in a watery grave, but in Yemen, the group he once led appears to be as strong as ever. Just a few years ago, there were only 200-300 militants in the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That number has now tripled, according to Gregory Johnsen, a top Yemen expert and author of the excellent new book, “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.” And, if you put together the group’s members, close supporters and family, Johnsen says the number is something like 6,000.

A late night snack stand in the Old City. (Photo: Adam Rivera/NBC News)

I kept these numbers in mind as I made preparations for our Rock Center team to travel to Yemen for a story about AQAP, which is now considered the world’s most capable and active terror group targeting the United States. One of my main questions, as our team’s producer, was how we would be able to stay safe in a place where al-Qaida is so strong.

Ahead of the trip, a US government official counseled me simply not to travel to Yemen. In light of this past September’s violence against Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and attacks against US embassies throughout the region, including in Yemen, he believed the trip would be too dangerous.

PHOTOBLOG: Finding calm in Yemen's capital despite the nation's instability

A veteran reporter based in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, had similar advice. I told her that we were planning to travel to the south, to a province where AQAP and its local ally, Ansar al-Sharia, had established an emirate, a kind of mini-state, in the spring of 2011. They held the area through June of this year. “I wouldn’t go there now,” said the reporter, “it’s just too dangerous.” But another journalist who’d been to Yemen many times had the opposite perspective. “I can honestly say I never felt scared even for a second in Yemen,” he said, “even in sketchy places with an Ansar presence.”

These were the mixed signals we received as we applied for visas to travel not only to Yemen but also to Saudi Arabia (which we ended up skipping). This process, which is never straightforward or quick, turned into a sprint as we rushed to arrive in Yemen while author Gregory Johnsen was there—so we could interview him in situ. Luckily, our persuasive assistant producer, Rima Abdelkader, feverishly worked the phones and inspired unprecedented goodwill from the Yemeni Embassy’s Mohamed Albasha and the Saudi Embassy’s Nail Al-Jubeir. In the end, we managed to get visas stamped into passports just in time for our team of journalists who would travel to Yemen from spots literally all over the world—New York, Kabul, Beijing, Hong Kong and Cairo.

When we arrived in Yemen, we discovered a place that, despite all the warnings, was one of the friendliest, most hospitable of any that any of us had ever been.[i] At the same time, we found a troubled country, the poorest in the Arab world, and a nation torn apart by several conflicts—the battle between AQAP and the government simply being the one that interests the US the most.

At the start of our first day of reporting, associate producer Adam Rivera and I were shuttled to the beautiful home of Sheikh Mohammed Abulahoum, a key opposition politician.  Sheikh Abulahoum had lived in the US for years, and he spent the afternoon speaking optimistically about his country and plying us with tea and khat. Khat leaves, which act as a mild stimulant when wadded into your cheek, chewing tobacco-style, are the indispensable conversational lubricant of Yemeni society.

That night, Adam and I arrived by appointment at one of Sanaa’s tonier hotels and were swept up by a private elevator to a special dining room where we were guests of a high-level military official of the autocratic regime that was driven from power last year. (Though he’s no longer head of state, Yemen’s former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh is back in Sanaa and said to be pulling levers of power behind the scenes. The subsequently tense political atmosphere in the capital led the former military official we met to request that we not disclose his name as a condition of our meeting.)

The former official was a barrel-chested man with what military types call “command authority,” an effect accentuated by the group of eight loyal men who surrounded him. Unlike Abulahoum, the former official was gloomy about Yemen’s future—not surprising given that his people had recently lost power. The ethic of hospitality was the same with both men, though their approach was somewhat different. When I offered to contribute to the dinner check, the group of men surrounding the former military chief audibly held their breath. He turned toward me slowly and said with the tiniest of smiles: “I have many guns and have used them for less of an insult than the one you just gave me.”

WATCH VIDEO: Is the world's most dangerous man in Yemen?

This was our experience of Yemen. We were the recipients of aggressive hospitality, coupled with a surfeit of guns, all the time aware that al-Qaida’s most menacing chapter was hiding out somewhere within a couple hundred miles of wherever we were.

When our team traveled through the pancake-flat, dusty province of Abyan, the area I’d been warned to avoid, we were escorted by two pickup trucks full of soldiers. The government in Sanaa has little control over the area and insisted on sending them. Yemeni soldiers are the people most likely to become the target of an AQAP attack, so these men were twitchy and never let our team stay too long in one place.

Producer Solly Granatstein, cameraman David Lom, and NBC's Richard Engel (Photo: Adam Rivera/NBC News)

It was difficult to tell whether some of the people staring out at us as we passed were hostile or wary. Either reaction would be understandable given what’s happened to their community over the past couple of years. A war has been raging here, a war in which the CIA and US military are deeply involved.

This past May and June, Yemeni government forces teamed up with local anti-al-Qaida “popular committees,” as well as US advisors at a Yemeni base in the area, to dislodge the AQAP-Ansar emirate from the province. The US military also maintains a base nearby in Djibouti, from which remotely-piloted aerial drones and, reportedly, traditional warplanes fly over Yemen and take part in the war against al-Qaida.

Now, parts of Abyan look like Dresden or Grozny, the buildings flattened by aerial bombardment. In the town of Jaar, we stood in a massive crater that used to be an apartment building. People who’d been there on the morning of May 18 told us that a warplane had dropped a bomb on the building, killing some. Then, while neighbors dug through the rubble for survivors, the plane returned for a second strike, killing more. In all, we were told, 14 people had died. The witnesses said they had no idea whose planes had carried out the bombing.

The US drone campaign in Yemen has succeeded in eliminating several individuals American officials believe to be al-Qaida leaders, killing them with missiles fired from above. The most famous example was Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and AQAP propagandist considered especially dangerous because he spoke English. (The extent to which al-Awlaki was operationally significant to AQAP is a matter of debate.) Despite these successes, however, author Gregory Johnsen told us he believes the US is over-reliant on drones to combat terror group in several countries and that civilian casualties in air strikes have become a recruiting tool for al-Qaida.

“I think the people in the United States by and large do not realize what's being done in their name in places like Yemen, in places like Somalia, in places like Pakistan, and the anger and the frustration and the hatred that it's creating on the ground here,” Johnsen said to Richard Engel during an interview conducted in Sanaa’s old city.

In the end, we made it in and out of Abyan without incident. Looking back, it seemed perfectly safe. It may seem strange to say this, but a place only seems dangerous if something bad happens to you.

Our last night in Yemen, we went to the market of Sanaa’s old city and strolled among the stalls that alternately sold pistachios, raisins, spices, shoes and the large decorative knives that the men wear in their belts. We were a noticeable group, as there aren’t many foreigners in Sanaa these days and virtually no tourists.

The shopkeepers beckoned us into their stores, but not to sell us anything. They wanted us to take their pictures. As we left each shop, the shopkeeper would reach into a mound of raisins or nuts and hand us a fistful.

For our safety, I’d meant to be careful to say I was from Canada or Turkey. Somehow, though, I ended up in conversations about America. All of these Yemenis were fascinated by the United States and, at least in terms of what they would say to us—their guests—were nothing other than friendly toward our country.

Editor's Note: Richard Engel's full report, "The Bomb Maker," airs Thursday, November 15 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.

[i] Our reporter Richard Engel, the NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent, had been to Yemen many times and already knew the score.