Jun 06, 2004

Abu Hamza and Yemeni kidnapping

From Holy War Inc.
Arriving in Yemen in late 1998 was a group of second-generation British Muslims of Asian and Middle Eastern parentage, several of whom had ties to Abu Hamza. One was his son, Mohammad, another his son-in law, and another was the press officer for Abu Hamza's SoS group. These eight Britons, between seventeen and thirty-three years of age, grew up in the Midlands or the London area. Most had gone to school for courses in business studies, computers, or accounting, and those who had jobs were in unexceptional lines of work such as insurance. In short, they could not have been more ordinary and unthreatening. The Aden Eight, as they came to be known, said they?d gone on vacation to Yemen either to visit family members or to pick up some Arabic.

But a routine traffic stop by a Yemeni cop near Aden on December 24, 1998, brought to light a far more interesting tale. Inside the car were three of the eight men, who tried to speed away but were quickly arrested. Their arrests led the Yemeni government to a house in which they found a trove of items not normally associated with a quiet vacation: mines, rocket launchers, computers, encrypted communication equipment, and a variety of audiocassettes and videos from Abu Hamza's SoS organization. The Yemeni government contends that the Brits were linked to Abu Hassan's IAA [Islamic Army of Aden] and that some of their number were planning a veritable festival of Christmas bombing attacks in Aden,on an Anglican church, on the British consulate, on an American de-mining team, and on the Movenpick hotel (bombed six years before by bin Laden's group). A Western diplomat in Yemen told me that some of the Brits met with Abu Hassan before their arrest.certainly an unusual choice for an Arabic tutor. The British government's official position is that the Aden Eight, five of whom were sentenced to serve sentences of between three and seven years in Yemeni jails, did not receive a fair trial, not least because Yemen's president announced their guilt before the proceeding. Defense lawyers for the eight men say they were in some cases tortured into making false confessions.
Whatever the truth of this tangled tale, the Christmas Eve arrests of the Brits would quickly have tragic consequences. It was a little before midday on Monday, December 29: for one group of Western tourists, a day for driving through the deserts and mountains of Yemen's hinterland; for a group of kidnappers armed with bazookas, RPGs, and Kalashnikov rifles, a day for taking revenge for the capture of their recently jailed brother militants. The kidnappers, about twenty in all, could see the convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers making its way along the open plain on the road toward Aden. The militants could see that the passengers in the convoy were all kufr, infidels, and prayed that as many of them as possible were Americans. Their leader, Abu Hassan, was determined to secure the release of his British comrades.

In one of the Land Cruisers was Mary Quin. A vice president of the Xerox Corporation from Rochester, New York, she was in Yemen to visit its unusual medieval cities. "We were supposed to drive about three hundred kilometers that day," she told me. "We were driving along in five Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicles on a desert road just past a market town when a pickup truck pulled up between two of our vehicles. The first indication that something was wrong was gunshots. I thought, 'This is not going to be a normal day.' We didn't understand what was happening. Guys with guns surrounded the vehicles and took us off across the desert. We drove for about twenty minutes, until we got to a ravine."

Quin, a no-nonsense business executive with a Ph.D. in materials science, estimated that there were eighteen kidnappers: a hard-core group that was anxious and tense (including one man with a satellite phone), and a group of local village guys along for the ride. "Only one of the terrorists in the group spoke English," she said. "He told us that we were being kidnapped because the Yemeni government had arrested some of their English comrades." The kidnappers said they were also protesting the recent Operation Desert Fox, when over the course of seventy hours beginning December 17 the United States had launched more than four hundred cruise missile attacks and dropped more than six hundred bombs on Iraqi targets. Quin's captor told her: "You are not responsible for the bombing of Iraq, but your governments are." She said it was clear that the hostage-takers were unhappy that the tour group included only two Americans.

The ordeal had its lighter moments. Quin recalled, among them a Monty Python?esque discussion with one of the kidnappers about the difference between "sauce" and "gravy". But the following day would prove anything but amusing. "Almost exactly twenty-four hours after we had been kidnapped, we suddenly realized we were being rescued," she said. "It was very chaotic, guns were fired and grenades were thrown. We were getting shot at for two hours." Quin said her training as a scientist helped her to assess the situation from a logical point of view and kept her calm. "We were forced to be human shields," she said. "I grabbed the barrel of the gun of one of the kidnappers, who had been shot, and we had a tug-of-war over his AK-47 and I ripped it out of his arms." The grit she'd gotten from her native New Zealand emerged when she kicked and stomped the kidnapper on the head "with some relish."

The Yemeni government, which had never launched a rescue attempt in dozens of previous kidnappings, had forgotten to mention its plans to Western diplomats in Yemen. (The diplomats presumably would have discouraged the effort, being aware that such operations are hardly a specialty of the Yemeni army.) The scale, it turned out, had been large: more than two hundred Yemeni troops in an all-out assault on the kidnappers? hideout. The Yemeni government maintained that the kidnappers had fired first, an account that the surviving hostages hotly dispute. During the shoot-out, Abu Hassan told his lieutenant, Osama al-Masri, a member of Egypt's Jihad group, by now effectively part of al-Qaeda, to kill a woman, any woman. Unfortunately, al-Masri died in the battle, so investigators could not explore his links to Egypt's Jihad group and to bin Laden. The two had earlier that year issued a joint communique calling for the deaths of all Americans.

Killed in the botched rescue operation were three Britons and an Australian, men and women of character, including Dr. Peter Rowe, an iconoclastic physics lecturer at Britain's Durham University whose impatience with university politics was in inverse ratio to the love he had for his students. His wife, Claire Marston, also a university professor, was critically wounded. Ruth Williamson, a gentle Scottish health-care worker, was executed by one of the hostage takers. Also killed was Margaret Whitehouse, an English primary-school teacher who, forced to act as a human shield, went to her death "as though she were going on a Sunday walk" and died in front of her husband.
Abu Hassan and two other defendants went on trial in January 1999. Abu Hassan did not deny his guilt: he explained that after the kidnapping his self-styled army planned to assault British and American targets in Aden, throwing in an attack on a church for good measure, on the principle that "two religions cannot unite and a church bell cannot sound on the Arabian peninsula." His admission did no favors for his British Muslim buddies languishing in Yemeni jails; those were precisely the bombing plans with which they were later charged.

The most pressing question remains: Was there a relationship between Abu Hassan and Islamist elements in the Yemeni government? Tantalizing glimpses of such collusion came out during the kidnapping trial, among them the testimony of a driver employed by the tour company. He testified that Abu Hassan had made a satellite phone call to General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmer, a relative of President Salih who is reported to have met with bin Laden in Afghanistan in the eighties. Why would Abu Hassan take time out from his kidnapping efforts to chat with a member of the president's family? Another of the drivers testified that Abu Hassan used his satellite phone to call an unidentified person?presumably in charge of the operation?to say, ?We got the goods that were ordered: sixteen hundred cartons marked British and American,? a not very coded reference to the sixteen tourists. And a local tribal leader who had tried to mediate with Abu Hassan testified that the kidnappers told him, "We have contacts at a very high level." Abu Hassan was certainly running up his satellite phone charges: he also called Abu Hamza in London to tell him that he "did not expect the Yemeni government to deal with this matter in the same way it deals with other kidnappings." The solution to the mystery died with Abu Hassan, who was executed almost exactly a year before the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.