Kafa Al-Hashli

Radicalization and extremism among youth continue to percolate in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, with the recruitment and planning of a recent suicide attack unfolding in proximity to my own childhood home. 

The story of Mu’ath, a young graduate of the College of Engineering in the Al-Mu’allah district of Aden, is instructive in terms of how extremist groups recruit young men for suicide attacks amid reports that 200 young men in Aden’s western Al-Braiga district are being trained for the same purpose.

Mu’ath dreamed of completing his university degree, finding a job and starting a family, according to those who knew him. He was passionately attached to his family and an avid fan of the latest fashions. Mu’ath’s Facebook profile described him as “a super crazy guy.” His social networking account was dedicated to documenting his activities with friends, news, and on moving to Europe, because he dreamt of immigrating to find work and a wife.

Then the war broke out. Mu’ath lost some close friends, including Ahmad Sahel, about whom he posted a video clip full of photographs. He then made plans to fulfill his dream.

Immigration was an obsession for Mu’ath, as described by his friend Ali Al-Fatimi, who was to join him: “We went to the seaport to await any boat from Djibouti so that we could get on it and start our journey. We sold our motorcycles for this, as the Houthis were moving closer to Aden.”

Mu’ath was not interested in fighting, Al-Fatami adds: “Mu’ath has a heart condition, and his heart was heavy with sorrow of many friends killed in the war. But the Houthis were fast approaching Al-Mu’alla, and we escaped [instead] with our families to Al-Sheikh and Al-Braiga. Mu’ath and his family were with us.”

One day, the two friends were having a cup of tea at the popular Al-Shajarah Cafe and discussing what was happening around them. Al-Fatami says Mu’ath was very frustrated, “but I told him not to worry. Tomorrow will bring us good news; we will immigrate, find jobs, and get married. I left him that day knowing that he was in a very bad state of mind, but I got preoccupied with the Riyadh conference, which I was attending as my brother’s companion in Saudi Arabia. I lost touch with Mu’ath because of the power outages, and when the war in Aden ended, I returned to monitor and document violations there. I looked for my friend Mu’ath and was told that he’d become a different person.”

Mu'ath appearing in a photograph released after a suicide truck bombing militants attributed to "Abu-Sa'eed the Adenite."

Al-Fatami was told that Mu’ath had gone to a different district where a school had been transformed into a training camp by Al-Qaida (AQAP) or Ansar Al-Sharia, which has loosely come to be known as Daesh (ISIS).

“The school is in the center of the district. I went there to look for him, but was told there was no one there named Mu’ath; all the names there are noms de guerre, such as Abu-Abdullah, Abu-Baraa, Abu-Ibrahim, and such. I returned and was distressed because I knew that Mu’ath was finished.”

Mu’ath hadn’t used his Facebook page for months, his friend says. 

“When he did return to his Facebook activity, his only action was to change his profile picture to a photograph of Bin Laden and the Islamic State’s banner. Nothing was seen on his Facebook page after that until news of a suicide operation was announced and Daesh named him as the bomber, although they did not use his real name. According to Daesh, Mu’ath died in a suicide truck bomb carried out by a Daesh member named Mu’ath “Abu-Sa’eed the Adenite” (Al-Adani in Arabic).”

Recent suicide operations in Aden have caused an unusual state of anxiety among residents, many of whose sons are armed but have not gone to fight in the front lines. These men end up with no jobs and no supervision, which has left them at the mercy of extremists.

Human rights activists estimate that over 200 young men between the ages of 15 and 23 have received intensive training during the war in Al-Braiga, a small district in western Aden. Al-Braiga was one of the strongest lines of defense against the Houthis. It was also a gateway to the Saudi-led Arab coalition forces and hosted the military operations’ command and control centers. The district is now witnessing the largest wave of extremist religious expansion.

The young men were trained to commit assassinations and suicide attacks aiming to wipe out any signs of governance in Aden with an eye towards transforming the governorate into an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law.

Al-Braiga is considered the most sensitive part of Aden in terms of the spread of extremism since many of the Yemenis taking part in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are from the area, and some have returned to teach its adolescents Al-Qaida’s creed.

These same fighters joined the Ansar Al-Sharia group in Abyan Governorate. The Yemeni government fought the group at the time and Abyan’s popular committees managed to clear them out of the governorate. However, during March and April, the religious groups became active and fought alongside the pro-legitimacy army. The groups’ leaders trained young men to bear arms in training camps in the district, and they received advanced weaponry furnished by the coalition (more specifically, the United Arab Emirates), including heavy weapons.  

These extremist groups were not in the front lines of the war the Houthis waged on Aden and Yemen’s South; rather, the young men of Aden were fighting the battles and were let down by the armed groups, who kept the weapons to themselves, only using them to fight as the month of Ramadan drew near.

The groups quickly cleared out the areas where they waged battle and secured victory in Aden on the 27th of Ramadan. However, the groups have continued to call the areas under their control “emirates,” appointing a governor for each one. Mere passage through an area under their protection requires approval from the Emir or the area commander. This rule even applies to the local residents.

The early signs of religious extremism in Aden started to appear in March, when extremist religious parties started to form armed youth battalions under the pretext of protecting the land from aggressors and those opposing legitimacy. These extremist groups were free to go about this with impunity, as the authorities had fled. 

Meanwhile, several of Aden’s districts - including Al-Braiga - formed popular defense committees to protect their areas from Daesh and check its movement, while security bodies track down the extremist groups currently clustered in the Al-Shu’ab area in northern Al-Braiga. The area is connected through vast and open areas of land to Lahej, a city between Aden and Ta’izz - all of which means that the war against these extremist groups now has threads that extend deep into Yemen that will wreck havoc for a long time to come.

Feature Image: Al-Balili mosque in Sana'a after a suicide attack (Reuters)

Kafa Al-Hashli is a Yemeni journalist currently working in exile because of the war. Her piece was translated from Arabic by Lana Ayyad, an interpreter at the United Nations Office in Vienna.