SANAA, Yemen – Abeer al-Hassani’s ex-husband was famed for his beautiful voice. He used it, she says, singing poetic hymns to martyrdom and jihad to try to draw youth from their neighborhood of the Yemeni capital into joining al-Qaida. He sang at weddings of fellow members of the terror group, and held discussions with young men at local mosques.
“One woman complained to me that her son wanted to go fight in Iraq after speaking with him,” the 25-year-old al-Hassani recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
For most of her young life, al-Hassani has been entangled with al-Qaida through family bonds she has tried to shake off. Three of her brothers became fighters for the group, and all three are now dead, two of them killed by U.S drone strikes on consecutive days in January 2013.
Her story provides a rare look into one of the most dangerous branches of the terror network, which has withstood successive blows and yet continues to thrive. It has moved to fueling conflict elsewhere in the region, sending fighters and expertise to Syria and to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Her ex-husband, Omar al-Hebishi, backed up his recruiting with cash. During their marriage, she says, he received large bank transfers or cash delivered overland from Saudi Arabia – money, he told her, that was to support the families of “martyrs.” She and al-Hebishi divorced in 2010.
A month ago, he left for Syria to fight alongside al-Qaida-inspired extremists – but not before trying to recruit the older of their two sons, 8-year-old Aws, to come with him by showing the boy videos of al-Qaida fighters jogging and swimming.
“Mom, I want to go because they have a swimming pool,” Aws told her, al-Hassani said.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known, has been hit hard in the past few years. A U.S.-backed government offensive in 2012 drove it out of southern cities that it seized a year earlier. Relentless U.S. drone strikes have killed several senior figures and dozens of lower-level fighters, keeping the group on the run.
Still, several Yemeni security officials said al-Qaida has spread to operate in every province of the country of more than 25 million. Al-Qaida’s branch demonstrated its capabilities with a sophisticated and brutal attack in December on the Defense Ministry in the capital, Sanaa, that killed more than 50 people.
The group benefits from Yemen’s political instability since the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. While his replacement Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is battling the group, Saleh’s loyalists still infusing security and intelligence agencies have quietly backed al-Qaida fighters to keep the government unstable, the officials told the AP. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press.
“The former regime forged a close relationship with al-Qaida,” said Fares al-Saggaf, an adviser to Hadi. In the southern province of Abyan “entire army camps have been handed over to al-Qaida.”
Al-Saggaf said al-Qaida is on the ropes, in large part due to the drone strikes. He said sympathy for the group has fallen, particularly after the December attack, during which fighters broke into a hospital inside the Defense Ministry complex and killed patients, doctors and nurses. Hadi ordered security camera footage of the bloodshed released to the public, a move al-Saggaf said “dealt the image of al-Qaida a serious blow.”
But al-Hassani’s tale illustrates the pull that al-Qaida has in a society where poverty is rife, the population is deeply conservative and many resent a corrupt government and abuses by security forces.
“I can guarantee you that my two sons, Aws and Hamza, will follow in the footsteps of their father if we stay in Yemen,” al-Hassani said. “We need to get out of Yemen.”
Diminutive and soft-spoken, wearing an enveloping black niqab veil and robes that leave only her large dark eyes visible, al-Hassani has lived under the full weight of Yemen’s patriarchal society. She was first married off at the age of 15, but she kept running away from her husband, so they divorced after only a month.
Soon after, her older brother Bandar brought home a new husband for her — al-Hebishi, a man 20 years her senior.
Al-Hebishi, known by his nom de guerre Abu Osayed al-Madani, is renowned in extremist circles as a “munshid,” or singer of Islamic hymns and anthems. His voice is often heard singing in al-Qaida propaganda videos showing footage from their attacks and of martyrs. The Yemeni security officials confirmed to AP that he works in the media branch of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
A veteran jihadi who fought in Bosnia in the 1990s, he was a secretive man who didn’t like having his picture taken, al-Hassani said. She showed one of the few photos she has of him — their wedding picture, where he stands grim-faced. “He was unhappy my mother was photographing him,” she said.
“He was so courteous and convincing when he spoke to teenagers he wanted to recruit,” said al-Hassani. In one case, she said, he used the money he received to buy a car and house for a Yemeni who lost both his legs while fighting alongside miltiants in Iraq, she said.
At home, she said, he was abusive, striking her and the children. After their divorce, her brothers forced her at one point to hand custody of their sons to al-Hebishi. During the time they were with him, al-Hebishi told her he burned matches on their younger son, Hamza, as part of his toilet training, al-Hassani said, showing photos of her son with the burns.
She said she received word two weeks ago that her ex-husband was now in Syria.
In recent weeks, militant supporters have proclaimed in messages on Twitter and on militant websites that “the munshid Abu Osayed al-Madani” has come to Syria and joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of the most hardline groups fighting in that country’s civil war. Al-Qaida’s central command broke off ties with the Islamic State in February, blaming it for increasing infighting with other militants.
A Twitter account in the name of Abu Osayed al-Madani, apparently belonging to her ex-husband, is full of tweets from Syria about the conflict. Among them are appeals for reconciliation between al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
During and after her marriage, al-Hassani watched helplessly as her three brothers, Bandar, Abdullah and Abdel-Meguid, were drawn one by one into al-Qaida.
Bandar, seven years older than al-Hassani, was detained by the Political Security Agency for two years. When he emerged in 2006 he had become more religious — indoctrinated by militants he was jailed with, al-Hassani says. For the next years, he associated with al-Qaida members, while security agents harassed him, trying to turn him into an informant.
In 2009, Abdel-Meguid, who was 16 at the time, was also arrested. He was held for three years, often in a cell with hardened militant fighters.
At about the same time, Abdullah — who was two years younger than al-Hassani, disappeared from home to join al-Qaida.
When the popular uprising against Saleh began in 2011, Bandar left home for the mountainous central province of Marib to join al-Qaida fighters, she said.
The following year, Abdel-Meguid was released from prison. The younger brother who loved dancing as a teen was now bitter.
“He only spoke about how much he wanted to blow himself up in the middle of Yemeni soldiers,” al-Hassani said.
She pleaded with him to stay at home, but after three days, Abdel-Meguid left to Marib to join his brother. From there, he went to the nearby province of al-Jawf for training in al-Qaida camps, al-Hassani said.
Bandar was killed by a drone strike in Marib on Jan. 20, 2013. The next day, a strike in al-Jawf killed Abdel-Meguid. Security officials confirmed the circumstances of their deaths to the AP.
Al-Hassani saw her brother Abdullah once before his death, in 2012.
She and her mother drove 19 hours to visit him in a village near al-Jaar, one of the southern cities that al-Qaida took over. Abdullah was there helping treat wounded fighters.
She was there for two days, and most of it she spent arguing with her brother. Abdullah tried to recruit her, offering her fellow fighters to marry so she could become a “mujaheda,” meaning she would cook and clean for the fighters. She argued back that al-Qaida defames Islam, that its fighters cut off the hands of thieves and execute people without really knowing if they are guilty.
Abdullah tried to convince her of the beauty of jihad. He told her fighters smile when they die, knowing they are entering paradise — militant videos and photos often show the corpses of martyrs with blissful smiles on their face.
“I just get depressed when I see their videos,” Abeer said.
It was their first meeting in three years — but it was a cold one. Abdullah scolded her for not wearing gloves and for not covering her eyes with a mesh.
“Every time I tried to give him a big hug, he would move away,” she said. “It was like he disapproved of me and what I stood for.”
Less than a week after they returned to Sanaa, Abdullah was killed in fighting with security forces.