EXCLUSIVE - YEMEN: Meeting the fighters of Ansar al-Sharia
In the south of Yemen, the town of Jaar is now under Sharia law. Our reporters travelled undercover to Jaar, which is controlled by the fighters of Ansar al-Sharia ("The Partisans of Sharia"), an al Qaeda affiliate.
After long negotiations involving several intermediaries, we are finally given the green light to meet Ansar al-Sharia (the “Partisans of Sharia") in the Arabian Peninsula.
Along with our contact, a young Yemeni named Wajdi, we take a minibus at 7 am to the city of Jaar, renamed Waqar by Ansar al-Sharia. It is located in the province of Abyan, in the south of Yemen.
My female colleague Tatiana has to wear the niqab so as not to attract the attention of the Yemeni soldiers, but also because Ansar al-Sharia demands it. With them, women must be covered from head to foot. We pretend we are married journalists.
The journey lasts three hours. At each army checkpoint, I hide behind a newspaper to avoid being spotted. Foreigners are not allowed to enter this region, and journalists even less so.
On arrival, we meet Fouad, who has a Kalashnikov slung across his shoulders. He is in charge of press relations for Ansar al-Sharia. The 25-year-old welcomes us with a big smile and invites us to lunch. The menu is meat, rice and fizzy drinks.
During our stay, Fouad watches us like a hawk. He mainly tells us about his group’s ideology and their plan to establish Sharia law in the whole of Yemen.
We are not allowed to interview the fighters of Ansar al-Sharia on camera. It is difficult even to film them: each time, security concerns are given. Most of the footage we manage to get of these fighters is filmed undercover.
We are not allowed to meet Abu Hamza, the head of Ansar al-Sharia, again due to security concerns.
After much negotiating, we get the green light to approach the 73 Yemeni soldiers being held hostage by Ansar al-Sharia. But there is one condition: I have to go without my colleague, supposedly because the hostages do not want to see any women. But while being searched, I realise the real reason: there is not a woman in sight. Under Sharia law, men are not allowed to search women.
The location the soldiers are being held is kept secret. I am blindfolded and get into a pick-up truck. We drive for half an hour, and I believe the location is not far from the city. We return the same evening.
We had agreed with Fouad to stay in Ansar al-Sharia’s stronghold for three days. But in the end, we were asked to leave earlier than planned. “Things are going to happen’, he warns us.
The day after we leave, the army checkpoint, which acts as a buffer between the fighters of Ansar al-Sharia and the town, is attacked. 15 people are killed. If we had stayed, it would have been much more difficult to leave.