Hostage for a Day

How I became a bargaining chip in Yemen’s tribal maze.

AMRAN PROVINCE, Yemen — I knew we should have opted to take an older, cheaper car. As the tribesmen running the checkpoint demanded that we pull over, I cursed myself for letting my misgivings slide. I'd taken the road before -- the split-second pause before getting the go-ahead from the armed locals who run the informal roadblocks dotting the roads running through the villages north of Sanaa may have raised my blood pressure, but I had never had any issues. Until now.

Confusion quickly ensued. The guys running the checkpoint -- a disorganized group of about a dozen armed, but generally disheveled, tribesmen in their late twenties -- seemed split on what to do. Most just wanted to let us pass, one seemed intent on stealing my friend's car, and a few seemed convinced I was an Iranian spy. After about 15 minutes, I realized that revealing my identity as an American journalist was probably the best of a slate of bad options.

Frantic arguments continued. Growing increasingly nervous, I pulled out what I knew would be the trump card, threatening to bring their sheikh into the matter. As I dialed the number for a close associate of the sheikh, a longtime friend, I vainly hoped they'd realize that it wasn't worth troubling one of Yemen's most powerful men with what was, until that point, a rather minor issue.

It didn't work out that way. Dragging the sheikh into it turned out to be exactly what the tribesmen wanted: They now agreed that I was indeed an American journalist rather than an Iranian spy, and further decided that I would be an excellent bargaining chip in their lingering dispute with the central government.

"You'll stay until the government compensates us for what we lost in the war in Hasaba," I was told. I had come here to get a better idea of the tenuous state of things in the tribal areas north of Sanaa. Instead, I had become a hostage of them.

My kidnapping -- which occurred, ironically, on the second anniversary of the start of Yemen's revolution -- had its roots in the wounds opened up by that revolt, which remain unhealed to this day. In May 2011, the uprising against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally sparked the urban warfare that many feared was inevitable. A day after Saleh refused to sign an internationally backed power transfer agreement, fighting erupted between pro-Saleh troops and fighters loyal to one of the country's most powerful tribal leaders. Despite the seeming asymmetry, the tribal forces put up a hell of a fight in the ensuing weeks, seizing control of a number of government ministries as their scores of kinsmen -- including the guys who kidnapped me -- descended from north of the capital to join.

A year and a half after the sporadic battles ended, Hasaba, the neighborhood where the fighting was concentrated, still bears resemblance to civil war-era Beirut. Government assurances of compensation for those who were affected by the fighting, it seems, have yet to come to fruition. I've largely associated all of this with the bombed-out buildings in the area that was once the epicenter of the fighting. But the ripple effects of the fighting extend for miles: The guys that kidnapped me, it turned out, were still bitter over the loss of their car, which was destroyed when they traveled to Sanaa to join in the battle. The Hasaba war of May 2011, oddly enough, bore indirect responsibility for my time as a hostage in February 2013.

Regaining my composure, I called my friend, who told me to pass the phone to my kidnappers. However, I soon lost this vital link to the outside world: About three minutes in, my phone ran out of credit. Whether as a result of the conversation or their independent decision, the tribesmen decided to take me to meet a local military official in a location that, unfortunately, was outside of my cell phone carrier's coverage. After remaining calm as I spent what felt like an eternity, but was probably about 15 minutes, screaming about my lack of service, the army guy, who had been in contact with my friend, passed me his phone.

The sheikh, my friend relayed, was currently in a meeting, but he gave his assurance that I'd be released in a few hours. Until then, the military official would host me at his home -- a euphemism, I soon discovered, for the fact that I'd spend the evening chewing qat with half the village, my kidnappers included. It took about an hour for me to realize that there was something kind of odd about a military officer mediating a kidnapping.

I settled in, as relaxed as I was ever going to get given the circumstances. My kidnappers were rather welcoming, stressing that they saw me as a guest rather than a hostage. I didn't have cell coverage, but my portable modem worked, which allowed me to keep tabs on my Google news feeds to make sure news of my predicament hadn't hit the media. Until the publication of this article, I don't believe it has.

For the next two hours, my kidnappers and their kinsmen issued a litany of complaints and requests in the hopes that I'd pass them on to my contacts when I got back to Sanaa. Gas, they grumbled, is too expensive and often difficult to find. Jobs are scarce, they said, and government services are nearly absent.

"Why don't foreign businesses and [humanitarian] organizations come here?" one tribesman asked, prompting the room to erupt in claims of the area's mineral wealth and a cataloguing of the inadequacies in education and health care. The entire district, apparently, lacks a single hospital.

"Kidnapping an American journalist might not be the best way to get foreigners to come here," I noted in English, prompting my Yemeni friend I was traveling with -- a hostage by association -- to burst out laughing, forcing us to translate what I said to the confused tribesmen, most of whom laughed as well. Generally speaking, it wasn't too different from the hundreds of social gatherings I've attended in Yemen that didn't involve me being held against my will: I may have been inconvenienced, but I certainly wasn't in any danger.

Nevertheless, I was pretty pleased when the call came through with the news that a resolution had been reached. My release was guaranteed, and the army officer would travel to Sanaa in the coming days to discuss compensation there.

Still, my kidnappers' problem was far from solved. They didn't make much of an effort to hide their disappointment. In the end, their demands were simply forced up the chain of command -- a far cry from their hope of getting urgent government attention.

"If you called the government, I would have gotten my money," one vented. My half-hearted attempt to stifle a laugh failed miserably.

"My brother, how long have you been a Yemeni?" I retorted, prompting a few in the room to erupt in laughter. "If we left this in the government's hands, I'd be married from your village with two kids by the time I got out."

Most in the room nodded their agreement. It's a fact of life in Yemen: When it comes with dealing with an important issue, it's best to ignore the question of whom you should trust, and instead defer to whoever will actually be able to get things done. I had full faith that my friend's connections would get me out as quickly, quietly, and as safely as possible. More conventional ways of dealing with the issue never crossed my mind.

I said goodbye to my erstwhile captors, who sent me on my way, urging me to call to confirm my safety as soon as I returned to Sanaa. The ordeal was over.

In a way, what happened to me was an odd testament to the resilience of the informal conflict resolution mechanisms embedded in Yemeni society. Everything transpired without the involvement or knowledge of Yemen's government or, for that matter, my country's embassy -- "tribalism" caused the problem, and a few hours later, it provided the solution.

That's not to say, of course, that the rather painless resolution of my kidnapping means that all's well here. A diverse group of Yemenis may have taken to the streets in 2011, but when you asked those demonstrating what they wanted, most of them ended up saying the same thing. "Dawla madania," they repeated, "a civil state." In English or Arabic, they're rather flexible words -- they could suggest a genuine attachment to  secular ideals, or nothing more than political posturing.

Staring blankly at revolutionary commemorations as I sat as a guest-hostage in a random village 60 miles north of Sanaa waiting for a politician-sheikh to pacify his irate tribesmen, efforts to project ideology or politics onto the upheaval in Yemen seemed to miss the point. For most citizens, having a "civil state," ultimately, just means having a government that actually works.

"Don't blame me, blame the people in Sanaa," one of my kidnappers told me, pushing back at my tongue-in-cheek suggestion, at one point, that he apologize for wasting so much of my time. "This wouldn't have happened if the government did what it was supposed to do."

I take issue with his means of dealing with the problem. But still, I have to admit -- the guy has a point.

AFP/Getty Images


Inside the Islamic Emirate of Timbuktu

An exclusive trove of al Qaeda documents found in this fabled city shows a theocracy in the making in Mali.

TIMBUKTU, Mali — The Islamic court of Timbuktu referred to it as Case Number 25. The date written on the court document is Oct. 10, 2012. "In front of us stands a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, who is accused of practicing magic," reads the document. "During investigation he admitted to have used talismans, magical tables, and magical seals, and to writing [Quranic] verses and tearing them, which makes him a magician."

The court, led by judge Muhammad bin al-Hussain, asked the culprit to publically repent. This, of course, he did immediately. According to the court paper, Muhamad uttered the shahada -- the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God. He then promised the Islamic court he would study the Quran. "This is why we did not spill his blood," reads the document. Instead of the death sentence, Muhamad the Magician was sentenced to "three days in jail so other people can take it as an example."

From April 2012 until January 2013, al Qaeda and its local ally, Ansar Dine, attempted to establish an Islamist theocracy in the northern Mali city of Timbuktu. Hundreds of documents found in the hastily abandoned offices of the Islamic police and the sharia court show how the radicals meticulously created institutions meant to implement their harsh version of Islamic law, which included destroying historic shrines and ancient manuscripts in the ancient city. The Islamists only fled after a French military intervention helped the Malian army wrest Timbuktu from their grasp.

The extremists commandeered a local establishment named La Maison -- a fancy, French-owned hotel designed to resemble a traditional Malian home, made of brown clay -- as the headquarters for their Islamic court. In one of the upper rooms of the hotel, stacks of papers detailed the punishments to be meted out. In the same room, a rope lay on the floor. According to a local man, who did not want to be identified, the rope was used for floggings -- a common sentence delivered by the Islamic court.

Recovered copybooks suggest that the Islamic court was divided into three sections, with a total of nine judges sitting on the bench. The first section was responsible for transgressions such as "murder, robbery, adultery, alcohol, smoking, swearing, and magic." The second section dealt with social issues, such as marriage and divorce; the third was devoted to financial matters, notably "money and land disputes."

The extremists used a bank in the center of town as their police station. On a wall inside the building is written the Arabic text: "Tanzeem al Qaeda fi al-Maghreb" -- Organization of al Qaeda in North Africa. A pickaxe had been left in one of the rooms. "The religious police used this pickaxe to destroy the mausoleums in the graveyards," explained Malik Diko, a former tour guide who stayed in Timbuktu during the period of extremist rule.

Hidden away in the makeshift police station was a two-page letter from one of the main leaders of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdul Hamid Abu Zayd. The memorandum, dated Oct. 15, 2012, and titled "Obligatory guidelines for the general police, moral police, and the rest of the soldiers," provides a blueprint for how the local security forces should implement religious law in Timbuktu.

While some of the instructions -- such as the prohibition on magic, smoking cigarettes, or women wearing makeup -- may seem bizarre to a Western audience, other recommendations are clear attempts to put a limit on the powers of the religious police. The 14-point memorandum, for instance, states that citizens' houses cannot be entered without the explicit permission of the "emir of Timbuktu," that punishment can only take place at the police station, and that police are not allowed to examine the contents of citizens' mobile phones without just cause. Even in the event that a Timbuktu resident is sentenced to lashings, the document advises, "our brothers should not use excessive force."

The Islamists didn't just organize the city's legal system, they developed a military plan to control and defend the city -- albeit one that collapsed in the face of the French-assisted military offensive in January. Various Islamist commanders were in charge of the defense of different strategic locations throughout Timbuktu. The airport, for instance, was guarded by commander Abdul Haq and his men. The Ahmed Baba Center -- where hundreds of old manuscripts were burned hours before al Qaeda and its allies fled the city -- was controlled by a commander named Abu Moussa. And commander Abu Sayaf was in charge of securing the power station of Timbuktu.

The documents also show clear evidence of the international nature of the extremist takeover of northern Mali. The top Islamic judge, Muhammad bin al-Hussain, used a mobile phone with a Libyan number. In other notebooks, two more Libyan telephone numbers were found next to names of, presumably, commanders. Two telephone numbers from Algeria also appear among the notes.

Each case gives a unique view of how strict Islamic law was applied during al Qaeda's short-lived Islamic state. While the rulers of the "emirate of Timbuktu" were certainly brutal and repressive, they also took care to establish a government built to last -- one with functioning institutions that at times even protected residents against their own loyalists.

In one court session, titled Case Number 8, the judges consider the fate of a man named Abu Bakr Burkina. He is one of their own fighters who stands accused of having raped a girl in Timbuktu. The court paper, dated Aug. 27, 2012, reads: "After listening to his saying he [Abu Bakr Burkina] admitted that he committed adultery with the girl after having threatened to take her to the police headquarters late at night. He carried his gun. And all this evidence confirmed what the girl has said earlier."

On the same document the punishment is written down: "Based on everything, we sentence Abu Bakr Burkina to the following: a. 100 lashes because he is not married but single. b. Banishment for one year (that will take place in prison). c. The girl is not to be punished as she was forced."

Another court case, on Aug. 16, 2012, details harsh punishment against someone discovered drinking alcohol. "The judges sentence Ibrahim bin al-Hussain to 40 lashes and paying of 50.000 CFA [$100] after he admitted to drinking wine and selling it in his shop. Also his shop will be closed temporarily by the Islamic police."

Women were also lashed, as Case Number 29, on Oct. 15, 2012, suggests. "Assia bint Omar came in front of us," states the document, "And we sentenced her to 60 lashes due to her mixing with men and the usage of foul words. She however denied that she committed any crime."

Many cases deal with marriage problems and matters of divorce. Not surprisingly, in most cases the judge tended to agree with the man, not the woman.

"In front of us stood Daham Ould el Radi who lives in Timbuktu," reads one sentencing, "He could not continue with his wife, who is called Bibi bint Osman. So we decided to separate them and the wife pays 100.000 CFA [$200]."

In cases where a woman wanted a divorce, the court was much more hesitant to act -- even when the female was a minor.

"Ahmad bin Mido is asking us to make it possible for him to consume his rights [that is, to have sex] with his wife Fatima bint Abdu who he married when she was still young," reads one document, "During the secular regime of Mali, he was punished with imprisonment and with paying a fine. The wife mentions now to us that she hates him due to his bad treatment of her."

Although the wife -- who is a minor -- hates the husband, the court decides in favor of him. "a. The man above can consummate with his wife. She should obey him and give him his [sexual] rights," reads the sentence. But there is a small compromise: "Due to the fear of the wife for her husband and her hatred for him we have decided to keep the wife at her parents' house. He can visit her there and try to build bridges and gain her back."

The court's ruling wasn't an outlier -- rather, it was an expression of the Islamist radicals' view of women as second-class citizens. Another document found at the Timbuktu police headquarters laid out the required dress code for women: The leaflet featured a picture of a faceless woman dressed in a black Islamic dress. This is the dress code for women, the text in Arabic and French explains. According to the document, the dark clothes must cover the full body. It may not be transparent. It must be large enough to avoid showing body shapes. It must not be colorful. It cannot be modern. The clothes must not look like those of a man, nor like those of unbelievers. And, lastly, it is forbidden to use perfume.

Al Qaeda and its allies were not only establishing their version of a Taliban state in northern Mali -- they were doing so systematically, transforming daily life to conform to their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. If they had not been driven out by military force, there is every reason to believe they would have succeeded.