by Florian Flade
Journalist Abdul Elah Shaea and Yemen´s al-Qaeda leader Al-Wuhayshi
It happened on Monday, August 16th, in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Twenty to twenty-five people in military uniform and civilian dress raided the house of famous Yemeni journalist Abdul Elah Haider Shaea. The men took his computer, his camera and documents, pushed him to the ground and handcuffed the journalist.
At the same time in a different part of the city, police units arrested Shaea´s friend and Cartoonist Kamal Sharaf. Both men were driven away in what looked like and was first reported as a kidnapping case.
For two weeks there was no sign of the journalists, no statement released by any Yemeni rebel group or state official. Abdul Elah Shaea and Kamal Sharaf just disappeared.
On September 1th, Yemeni authorities confirmed that Shaea and Sharaf had been arrested by Yemeni intelligence officials on suspicion of supporting the terror group al-Qaeda and spreading its propaganda.
According to security sources Shaea offered video cassettes from al-Qaeda operations in Yemen to the media and received money which he used to support the organization. The security authorities also concern Shaea as one of the most enthusiastic defenders and promoters of al-Qaeda and its operations through the satellite channels where he presents himself as an expert on al-Qaeda.
Abdul Elah Shaea, a reporter for Yemen-based „Saba News Agency“, is widely regarded as the leading expert on al-Qaeda´s organization in Yemen. Several times he appeared on Al-Jazeera talking about recent terror-related events in Yemen, especially after the US-airstrikes in December 2009 and the failed Christmas Bombing of a passenger plane over Detroit, carried out by an al-Qaeda member trained in Yemen.
Shaea who is married to a relative of Shaykh Abdul Majid al-Zandani (called „The Red Shaykh“), one of Yemen´s leading and most controversial scholars, is said to have very close ties to the Jihadi movement of his country. He used his contacts within the al-Qaeda network to conduct a number of interviews with high-ranking terrorists.
In March 2009 Abdul Elah Haider Shaea was invited by al-Qaeda´s Emir on the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who acted as Osama Bin Laden´s private secretary in the 1990s, for an interview. This rare chance of interviewing a wanted terrorist leader was given to Shaea only a few months after al-Qaeda announced it has formed it´s Yemeni-Saudi branch called „al-Qaidat al-Jihad fi-l Jazeerah tul-Arab“.
When rumors started the Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hassan who killed 13 people at a US military base in Fort Hood Texas in November 2009, was supervised by the US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki out of Yemen, Shaea decided to reach out to the radical preacher.
In early December the Yemeni journalist managed to contact New-Mexico-born al-Awlaki, who had praised the Fort Hood shooter as a „hero“ and a leading example for other US-Muslims to follow.
Only a few weeks after the interview with the wanted cleric, US cruise missiles struck villages in Yemen. The CIA had been given the order to find and kill Anwar al-Awlaki because he was seen as a growing threat for US national security caused by his influence on radical Muslim youth in the West.
Sources on the ground claimed al-Awlaki was among those people killed in the secret US airstrikes. No one was able to confirm if this information was indeed true. Abdul Elah Shaea could tell it was not.
Anwar al-Awlaki called the Yemeni journalist from his hiding place somewhere in the Shabwa province. „I´m alive“ – Awlaki told his interview-partner on the phone. Shaea later sold his „proof of life-interview“ with the al-Qaeda affiliated Shaykh to news broadcasters in the United States.
How was this young Yemeni reporter able to speak to people the CIA is hunting for months without success? Tribal loyalties might be the answer to this. Perhaps Abdul Elah Shaea relies on his family ties in the powerful Awlaki clan. Or it is simply the trust between the journalist and the terrorists that made Shaea one of the most-trusted experts on al-Qaeda in the Middle East.
As one of the first voices in the media, he warned of the growing threat emerging from al-Qaeda in Yemen – even prior to the failed bombing attack by Nigerian jihadi Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab who lived in Yemen before going on his suicidal mission.
Yemen was and still is one of the most popular places in the Arab world where Western muslims (often converts to Islam) move to in order to learn proper Arabic and the Tafseer of the Quran, the correct reading of the holy scripture.
Journalist Shaea claimed to know who of those coming to his country would later end up with al-Qaeda just like the young Nigerian Abdulmutallab.
„I could tell from talking to them if they have moved to another level and become al-Qaeda idealists“, Shaea said, „There are indicators that I can grasp in the tone of their talks, certain terms, references, ways of discussions. Only a man who understands the thoughts and ideologies of all of these groups can tell. And this is what I claim to have“.
In the eyes the Yemeni authorities Abdul Elah Shaea has become a risk. They were no longer willing to accept the fact that Shaea was interviewing al-Qaeda and selling his work for cash while Yemeni security forces died fighting the Islamic insurgency. On the one hand the U.S. stir up the pressure on the government of President Saleh to fight terrorism and crush the al-Qaeda cells, on the other hand U.S. media paid thousands of dollars for exclusive information, video footage and pictures of al-Qaeda leaders.
Shaea now has become the scapegoat. On Sunday the hearings for Shaea´s case in front of the State Security Court in Sanaa started. One of the lawyers said: „The journalist Abdul Elah Haidar Shaea was accused of planning sabotage and criminal acts that threaten the security and stability of the nation, and providing media support for Al Qaeda.“
„It seems the charges were based on the interviews made by Shaea with the al-Qaeda leaders“, lawyer Abdul Rahman Barman went on to say.
A journalist colleague of Shaea, Marwan Dammaj, was allowed to witness the first round of hearings in Sanaa. He reports Abdul Elah Shaea is in bad physical health. „Shaea lost one of his teeth and he showed me bruises in his chest as a result of assaults when he was arrested“, Dammaj said.
In a letter the journalist´s family accused the Yemeni security forces of torture and abuse, saying Shaea was held at unknown places for days before being moved to the prison of the Political Security Organization on September 12th.
The National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (Hood) quoted security sources as confirming the transferring of Shaea and Cartoonist Kamal Sharaf, but said that both are in bad health conditions.
In a press release, „Hood“ said that the families of the two journalists tried to get access to them and give them food and clothes but the prison’s administration rejected to allow visitors to get to the detainees.
The charges brought forward against the famous journalist are tough, yet his lawyers say they „lack hard evidence“. Yemen´s security officials believe Abdul Elah Shaea created a business in which he sold exclusive al-Qaeda propaganda material to media organizations and in return gave money to the terrorists. Some sources state Shaea has sworn loyalty to al-Qaeda´s Nasser al-Wuhayshi (Abu Basir) when he interviewed the Yemeni terror leader.
Even if some human rights groups and journalists-union call Shaea´s case a perfect example of Yemen´s oppression of free-journalism and press, there are some facts which should not be ignored.
For example a picture Shaea sold to US-TV Channel ABC News in December 2009. In the photo the Yemeni journalist is seen sitting next to al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
ABC News also obtained the propaganda video of Yemen´s al-Qaeda in which Nigerian underwear-bomber Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab is giving his martyrdom statement and is seen training in an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen. This footage, produced by the official „Al-Malahim“ media wing of the Arabian al-Qaeda, was broadcasted exclusively on April 26th of this year in ABC´s „World News“. It took one month (May 26th) for the Yemeni al-Qaeda to release the very same video officially via the usual internet forums.
Why did al-Qaeda send the Airliner-bomber video testimony first to the infidel American TV Channel that cut it in pieces, releasing only a few seconds of the 53-Minute propaganda piece? How come al-Qaeda led its supporters and Online-warriors wait patiently for four weeks until they were allowed to watch the tape?
Although ABC News just said it obtained the video from „sources in Yemen“, it seems very likely the source of it was Abdul Elah Shaea. In my mind there is no doubt the journalist was given the footage by his al-Qaeda contacts and he decided to turn it into cash.
To tell from personal experience: Last year I contacted Shaea on Facebook, asking him if he could give me his opinion and the most recent information about the kidnapping case of a German family (with three children) and a British man. The Westerners worked for a Christian aid organization in the town of Saada in North Yemen and were kidnapped on a weekend trip in June 2009. Two female German Bible students and a South Korean teacher (wife of the British hostage) were killed the same day the kidnapping occurred. No terror group or rebel movement claimed responsibility for the incident or demanded any ransom.
I wanted to know what Abdul Elah Shaea was thinking about „Who are the kidnappers?“ and „Is it al-Qaeda? If so, why no video or statement?“ First Shaea, who´s English is horrible, told me he has no new information about the kidnapped Westeners.
When German media reported in late 2009, Yemeni security forces have spotted the place where the German hostages are being held and German government has received two videos showing two kidnapped German girls (who were released earlier this year), I contacted Shaea again.
He said he could tell me where the German family was. I told him „The German government has two videos proving they are alive“. Shaea responded (I´m paraphrasing): „I can give you the video. How much do you pay? 15,000 Dollars?“
In a country ruled by a dictator, controlled by security forces and intelligence units, it is hard to say where the truth lays in the arrest and prosecution of a journalist. Clearly the U.S. has an interest in Shaea´s information about Anwar al-Awlaki´s whereabouts. Still, the fact is: al-Qaeda loved Abdul Elah Shaea (his Al-Jazeera appearences fill parts of AQ´s propaganda tapes), and he benefited from his ties to the most-wanted terrorists in the country.
U.S. media spoke to Abdul Elah Shaea back in April. He told the reporter about his relationship to Awlaki, al-Qaeda and the others: „I´m proud to be a mediator between the world and the person the world is interested in.“