AP Investigation: Behind the Scenes in Yemen, U.S.-Backed Saudi Coalition Is Working with al-Qaeda

StoryAugust 14, 2018
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The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has repeatedly cut secret deals with al-Qaeda, even paying its fighters to retreat from towns or join the coalition, a bombshell Associated Press investigation has revealed. The AP probe accuses the United States of being aligned with al-Qaeda in the fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, despite claiming to be fighting the extremist group in the region. One senior tribal leader told the AP, “Al-Qaeda wasn’t defeated. It didn’t fight in the first place.” We speak with Maggie Michael, one of the three reporters for the Associated Press who broke the story, headlined “U.S. Allies Spin Deals with al-Qaida in War on Rebels.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an explosive new Associated Press investigation that found the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition there has repeatedly cut secret deals with al-Qaeda in Yemen, even paying its fighters to retreat from towns or join the coalition. The AP investigation accuses the United States of being essentially aligned with al-Qaeda in the fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, despite claiming to be fighting al-Qaeda in the region.

For more, we’re joined in Cairo, Egypt, by Maggie Michael, one of the three reporters for the Associated Press who broke this story, headlined “U.S. allies spin deals with al Qaeda in war on rebels.” Explain what you found, Maggie.

MAGGIE MICHAEL: We worked on examining the Emirati campaign against terrorism in southern Yemen. Repeatedly over the past year, since 2016, Emiratis, along with the Pentagon, declared victories after victories against al-Qaeda, liberating cities from the group, without really telling us how this happened. We looked closely into different areas— basically, Hadhramaut, Abyan and Shabwah. And in the three of these provinces, we found, through tribal mediators, officials, witnesses, residents, that there was no actual fight on the ground.

And what happened is, the Qaeda militants pulled out days and months and weeks before the campaign started. They pulled out, leaving the city without any fight. And then the Emiratis deployed their forces, and then they declared victory. The Pentagon joins and says, “We have helped and assisted the Emiratis with a small force on the ground to defeat al-Qaeda.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Sheikh Tarek al-Fadhali, an Abyan tribal leader and mediator, speaking in a video that accompanies your Associated Press report.

SHEIKH TAREK AL-FADHALI: [translated] The Americans know everything and more about what we know. They knew about the mediation, step by step, one by one, and they were turning a blind eye.

AMY GOODMAN: Maggie Michael, can you explain who he is and the significance of what he’s saying?

MAGGIE MICHAEL: Tarek al-Fadhali is a very well-known tribal leader in Yemen. He, in the past, was fighting next to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He came back to Yemen, and he’s one of the Afghan Arab fighters recruited even by the government itself to fight the south in this fight between the north and the south. He played different roles. At the very end, when we interviewed him, we found that he was in direct contact with the Americans, feeding them with information about the movement of al-Qaeda, about the deals that’s going on.

This area in Abyan has very active U.S. drone activity. I mean, the drones don’t leave the sky. But on the days where al-Qaeda was leaving, there was no strikes. And that was the question we raised with Sheikh Tarek al-Fadhali, asking him, “What do you think about it?” And he said that this is not a surprise; the Americans know everything.

And in addition to Tarek, there were several other tribal mediators. We interviewed them, and one of them actually hosted al-Qaeda leaders inside his farm, and he held like a farewell dinner before they left.

AMY GOODMAN: The Washington Times reports Pentagon officials denied U.S.-supported allies bribed or recruited al-Qaeda members in Yemen. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning said, quote, “That is … patently false. We do not pay al-Qaeda, we kill al-Qaeda.” Maggie Michael?

MAGGIE MICHAEL: Yes. I mean, this is the line of the United States, along with the Emiratis. Yesterday also, the Emirati officials held a press conference denying that they had any agreements or deals with al-Qaeda. But on the ground, we had so many witnesses and people who were involved in these meetings, including the tribal mediator who was involved in a meeting between the Emiratis and al-Qaeda where they agreed on paying money in order for the group to withdraw from Shabwah. And the denials don’t really add—I mean, don’t give more information, just general denials.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you, Maggie, respond to the killing that we were just talking about, the U.S.-backed Saudi bombing of this school bus, 40 schoolchildren killed? Now there are thousands of people going to funerals in Yemen, 51 people overall killed. How does this fit into the picture that you have found in your investigation?

MAGGIE MICHAEL: What’s very hard to determine in Yemen is what the children were doing. I mean, we worked and covered Yemen since 2015. We know that the Saudi-led coalition has bombed civilian targets all the time—markets, hospitals, schools. This is not a surprise. But we also know that the Houthis are actively recruiting the children, and then they send them to the front lines. And the question marks here that are not answered yet: What were the children doing at the time?

There are no schools right now in Yemen. There are no buses carrying children from one school to the house. This is a luxury. The children were visiting a cemetery, and that’s where they promote the whole notion of jihad and martyrism. So, I mean, on one hand, the Saudi-led coalition is blamed for killing the civilians, and this has been ongoing without any—no question about it. But at the same time, we have to look at the other side of the picture and see what the Houthis were doing with the children.

AMY GOODMAN: Shireen Al-Adeimi, before we leave, your final comment on this latest killing, the U.S. bomb that was used in it, the documentation of that, and what U.S. Congress is doing about this? Because there are moves there to get out of supporting the Saudi and UAE attacks on Yemen.

SHIREEN AL-ADEIMI: Well, to just quickly respond to what your guest just said, it doesn’t really matter what the children were doing. They were children. They were in summer school. And for the Saudi-led coalition to bomb a bus full of children is a war crime, regardless of what the children were doing.

And to talk about really what the U.S. intervention in Yemen looks like, we know what it looks like. We know the devastation that it’s caused. Yemen is falling, and it is—all the services have been failing. A hundred and thirteen thousand children died in 2016 and 2017 alone of starvation and preventable diseases such as cholera.

And so, what we need from the Senate, what we need from Congress right now is to continue to push toward ending the U.S. involvement in Yemen, given how much the Saudis and the Emiratis rely on U.S. support, on U.S. weapons, on U.S. maintaining and repairing of their aircraft, on U.S. midair refueling and on U.S. targeting assistance. We know that they cannot continue to wage war on Yemen without extensive U.S. assistance, and Congress really needs to act quickly to continue to introduce resolutions in the Senate and in the House to push the U.S. out of Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Shireen Al-Adeimi is a Yemeni scholar, activist and assistant professor now at Michigan State University, speaking to us from East Lansing. And Maggie Michael, AP reporter, speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt.

This is Democracy Now! We have a Democracy Now! full-time job opening for a broadcast engineer here in our New York City studio. Find out more at democracynow.org.

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