Out of the Shadows, Onto the Screen

In a new video, a resurgent AQAP celebrates their latest jailbreak and warns what comes next.

SANAA, Yemen — The Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video on March 29 showing its leaders and other operatives celebrating a Feb. 13 jailbreak. In that operation, armed men stormed the Central Security Prison in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, with an explosive-laden car and automatic weapons, freeing more than two-dozen prisoners in fewer than 30 minutes. The Yemeni Ministry of Interior said that 19 of the 29 escapees were convicted of terrorism-related charges.

In previous videos, AQAP leaders have generally appeared individually, spoken from off-camera, or were filmed in non-descript rooms. The last time AQAP released public footage of such a brazen celebration was in 2011, when militants seized control of a swath of Yemen's Abyan and Shabwa provinces. During the few months AQAP controlled the area, it operated checkpoints on roads and AQAP officials delivered public speeches and sermons in local mosques -- but it was forced back into hiding after the central government launched a military offensive to retake the region in spring 2012.

In the recent video, released online by AQAP's al-Malahim media office, the militants appear as audacious as before: Dozens of fighters are shown marching -- in the open and in broad daylight -- through Yemen's mountains exchanging congratulations and celebrating the jailbreak with gunfire, chants, and public speeches. Even AQAP's reclusive emir, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, makes an appearance to welcome the escaped prisoners.

The bold defiance on display is a sharp rebuke to reports that AQAP has been decimated by drone strikes.

The video features interviews with two of the escapees, Munir al-Bouni and Saleh al-Sha'oush. Bouni was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2009 for joining AQAP and plotting attacks against tourist and government facilities. Sha'oush was arrested wearing an explosive belt in January 2010 in the southern port city of Mukalla and was tried in October 2010 for having a role in attacks on oil and gas facilities in the provinces of Hadramout and Mareb.

In the video, Bouni says that they began planning their escape when they were transferred from a prison run by the Political Security Organization, Yemen's secret police, to the Central Security Prison. Two days after arriving in the new prison, Bouni met other imprisoned members of AQAP, including Sha'oush, Mansour al-Dalil, and Mubarak al-Shabwani. Dalil and Shabwani were sentenced to death in July 2011 for killing eight soldiers in November 2009 in Hadramout province. Together, they settled on a plan to make 10 hand grenades in their cell, as well as a more powerful explosive device.

"All [bomb-making] materials were smuggled into the prison and we began making bombs," Bouni says in his interview. "The brothers [outside the prison] were tasked to destroy the wall and we would deal with the inside."

Sha'oush claims to have helped build the explosives in prison, then signaled AQAP members outside the prison to launch the attack. Rather than attack the main gate, AQAP blew through a wall of the prison with a car bomb followed by an assault by armed men.

Sha'oush describes the prisoners waiting impatiently for the car bomb to explode. "They wanted to leave the prison even before the car went off," he says. After the blast breached the prison wall, the inmates then used their prison-made explosives against the guards. Then, "even before the smoke cleared, they quickly ran into the wall and ran away," he says. "When we got out of prison, we turned right and the guys were waiting for us at the end of the road."

The jailbreak was met with a large celebration. In the video, masked men in a mountainous area fire machine guns and chant "God is great" as a convoy of brand new pickup trucks loaded with fighters drives past. Apparently to prove that they were present, the escapees appear unmasked, while most of the AQAP members in the video have their faces blurred. Keeping with Yemeni tribal customs, a man called Abu Yasser welcomes the freed prisoners with a short poem and al Qaeda fighters sing to the gathering. The men are served fruit while they listen to speakers. "As you can see, we enjoy great freedom," Mohammed al-Saadi, one of the escaped prisoners, says at one point. "We ask the Almighty to help us to slaughter the oppressors."

Among the speakers at the AQAP gathering is Ibrahim al-Rubaish, an AQAP religious leader and former Guantanamo detainee, who promises more al Qaeda jailbreaks around the world. "We have [incarcerated] brothers in Guantanamo, al-Hair and Dhahban [in Saudi Arabia], and Palestine," Rubaish says in the video.

Wuhayshi, who rarely appears in AQAP's video and audio releases, can be seen among the crowd. Despite AQAP's tit-for-tat killings in Yemen, Wuhayshi reminds his supporters that their target is the United States. "We should remember that we fight the biggest enemy. We must overthrow the leaders of infidelity and remove the cross and its holder, America," he says in an interview in the video. He reiterates the al Qaeda philosophy that they fight Yemeni soldiers because they stand in their way and prevent them from fighting Americans.

Despite the international threats like Wuhayshi's, AQAP has seemed to focus on more local concerns recently. In addition to the jailbreak in February, AQAP has staged attacks on military installations, and on March 31, the organization announced a new armed division, Ansar al-Sharia in the Central Regions, to specifically combat Yemen's Houthi movement. The Houthis are a Shiite revivalist organization based in Yemen's northern Saada province that fought several wars with the central government during the 2000s, but since 2010, they have clashed frequently with Yemeni Salafists, and AQAP has rallied to support armed opposition to the Shiite group.

But the video is a bold piece of propaganda directed at multiple audiences, says Saeed Obeid, an independent Yemeni terrorism expert. It is designed to reassure al Qaeda supporters that the organization looks after its own. In August 2013, Wuhayshi pledged to release al Qaeda prisoners, though he didn't name any specific prisons.

"He wants to benefit from his accomplishment and say that he honored his word and released prisoners," says Obeid. AQAP now wants to spin the successful jailbreak operation into good publicity abroad. "Al Qaeda sees propaganda as important as armed battles," said Obeid.

Two days after the release of the video, airstrikes hit suspected AQAP hideouts in al-Mahfed district in Abyan province in response to the video. Local media outlets attributed the strikes to the Yemeni Air Force, but Western reports suggest it was a U.S. drone strike. At the same time, the Ministry of Interior said it would gather information about AQAP havens across the country.

Despite al Qaeda's ruthless attacks on military posts that have killed tens of soldiers this year across the country, the Yemeni government still insists that it has the upper hand in the war against AQAP. Shortly after the deadly assault on an army complex in the southern port city of Aden on April 2, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi sent a message to the military, praising soldiers for "foiling" AQAP's assault and saying the country's armed forces are "recovering and regaining their strength." According to the Yemen's state news agency, 10 AQAP militants and six soldiers were killed when attackers detonated a car bomb at the gates of the base and stormed the facility, but security forces hunted them down before they reached the main building of the complex.

The Ministry of Interior has admitted recently that the trend of the war on al Qaeda is mainly based on reacting to and repelling AQAP attacks and has indicated it will be shifting to a more proactive policy. "Security services should take the lead and begin attacking al Qaeda instead of foiling attacks," the ministry said in a statement on its official website.

Recent reports have indicated that the United States is exploring the possibility of giving the Yemeni Air Force a fleet of armed crop dusters to allow the Yemeni government a larger role in what has largely been a U.S. effort to target AQAP leaders with airstrikes. But as the Yemeni government takes the fight to AQAP, it is going up against an emboldened enemy, and as this new video shows, it's not hiding in the shadows anymore.



'There Is No Hope To Get a Better Life'

How Rwanda's remarkable, two-decade march from genocide has left women behind.

Twenty years ago, more than half a million Rwandans lost their lives in 100 days in one of the most horrific genocides in history. In the aftermath of the genocide, President Paul Kagame has garnered international acclaim for his bold and innovative development policies: His stated goal is to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by the year 2020. Under his leadership, Rwanda has reengineered its agricultural sector, invested heavily in infrastructure, and partnered with foreign investors to produce impressive gross domestic product (GDP) growth. In Kigali, the capital city of nearly 1 million people, posh coffee shops and world-class hotels are popular among wealthy locals and expatriates. Women sweep the streets every morning, city workers regularly apply fresh paint to road medians, and plastic bags are outlawed.

Because of its visible progress, Kigali has been called "the cleanest place in Africa." Journalist Stephen Kinzer, in his book on Kagame's revitalization of the country, effused how "Rwandans are bubbling over with a sense of unlimited possibility."

The advancement of women is touted as a chief priority of the government's post-genocide development strategy. The Kagame regime has implemented myriad policies and programs aimed at promoting women in society, and by many measures, these programs have succeeded. Rwanda has more girls than boys in primary school, progressive protections against gender-based violence, and a rapidly declining fertility rate. Most famously, women comprise 64 percent of Rwanda's national parliament -- the highest level in the world. This has led to a widely publicized sense of optimism about the bright future of Rwanda's women.

But this is only one side to the story, the side that the Rwandan government wants journalists and international agencies to hear and report. Outside of the modern Kigali neighborhoods and beneath the country's orderly surface, things look quite different. Armed security officers stationed at regular intervals around Kigali ensure the city is secure, but also reflect the repression needed to maintain this security -- a repression with other dimensions, found in tight (and at times bizarre) regulations on people's everyday lives. Groups of young men stand idle in front of storefronts, seemingly socializing but really just killing time -- they have no work to do. In crowded markets or bus stations, these unemployed youth beg desperately for jobs.

As for Rwanda's women, many of them sell fruit and vegetables from baskets by the side of the road, but their work is illegal, and they flee at the first sign of police. Others line the dimly lit streets at night in Kigali's seedier neighborhoods, selling sex -- sometimes for next to nothing -- to keep their children fed and their rent paid.

In 2009, I set out to investigate the remarkable ascent of women in Rwandan politics for my Ph.D. dissertation in sociology. I interviewed dozens of impressive, passionate women in Rwanda's government, who articulated their firm commitment to their country's future as a prosperous, gender-sensitive, and stable nation. As I returned to Rwanda several more times in the following years, I also began to interview poorer women with no involvement in politics in order to understand how women's impressive political gains at the national level had impacted other lives. The contrast was striking: In interviews with more than 100 Rwandan women of a range of ages and backgrounds, I found that, growing up, many women believed they could get a "good job" if they studied hard and did well in school. But school was expensive and many were forced to drop out. Today, most cannot find jobs outside of the informal or agricultural sector. They are frustrated that excessive taxes and interference from local officials prevents them from ever being able to get ahead.

In short, Rwanda's women are not all thriving -- and signs that things will get better anytime soon remain painfully absent.

* * *

"Yvette" is a 24-year old street vendor. I met her in the back room of a noisy bar, in a poor neighborhood of Kigali. Growing up, she dreamed of becoming "a leader, a high minister." Instead, she was forced to drop out of secondary school after her first year, as her family could no longer pay her fees. A few years later she got married and had two children. Constantly hearing about the government's promotion of self-reliance and entrepreneurship, she decided to start her own business. "I tried to use my thinking, my ideas, to do something that would keep me going and pay the education fees for my kids," she explained. Unable to afford the high overhead cost of renting a stall in a market, Yvette decided to start a roadside business selling sugar cane and cassava roots out of a woven basket.

She quickly discovered that selling vegetables on the street is illegal. Deemed incongruous with the government's desired image of a clean, modern, and orderly country, plain-clothed police regularly seized her vegetables and tossed them into the street. Sometimes, they handcuffed her and dragged her to prison for days or even weeks. She has lost track of the number of times she's been arrested, but estimates it is somewhere around eight. She recently gave up selling vegetables in favor of selling clothes, because when the police inevitably throw her inventory in the street, "even if a car runs over the clothes you can still clean them."

"There is no hope to get a better life," she said when I asked her whether she thought her situation would improve; whether someday she might have a more secure job. "I don't have the freedom to work, and sometimes you are really hungry and your kids are really hungry but you don't buy food because you didn't get to work that day." She's from a poor family, "and the poverty from my family is following me, and I am going to pass it to my kids."

Yvette's experience is a common one. While tensions from the genocide have begun to fade, the country's pristine public image masks new strains: Though a handful of Rwandans have gained wealth and new rights since the genocide, many more ordinary Rwandans -- particularly women -- feel shortchanged.

A few weeks after I met Yvette, I sat down with "Devote" early in the morning at a small restaurant in the bustling Remera neighborhood of Kigali. While she sipped from a bottle of Primus -- a popular Rwandan beer -- she told me the story of her move to Kigali. Her husband was killed while serving in the Rwandan army, so she came to the city with her daughter to claim the widows' benefits to which she was entitled. Trained as a gardener, she had heard about the government's new development initiatives and was optimistic about her chances of finding work in the gardens of Kigali's affluent. Jobs, however, were few and far between. Then, after a boyfriend got her pregnant, "life became a bit harder." Devote stared at the floor as she described to me how she -- destitute, with two children to feed and rent to pay -- began sleeping with men nightly for as little as $1.50.

Devote has been unable to escape life as a sex worker. She was thrown in jail four times, each time for several weeks, leaving her children to be cared for by neighbors. She was given just one cup of corn per day and subjected to occasional abuse by police. In jail "you don't have human rights," she said. "You suffer. They cut your hair. They treat you as a human being with no value."

I interviewed dozens of women with similar stories. Rather than "bubbling over" with excitement about the future, women who are unemployed or working as street vendors, domestic servants, and sex workers shared stories about their inability to prosper within the confines of the new Rwandan state. Women in urban areas without access to land often find themselves forced to engage in these forms of informal work, which is at odds with the image the Rwandan government attempts to present of itself as a miraculous recovery story -- and which can land women in jail.

The state's arbitrary and draconian local regulations -- including substantial fines for such transgressions as walking barefoot, wearing unclean clothing in public, or failing to own a dining room table (ostensibly to prevent people from drying their dishes and utensils on the ground) -- add an additional layer of struggle for those trying to ascend the economic ladder. These regulations aim to improve hygiene and provide a cosmetic upgrade to rural and urban life, assuring visitors and foreign investors that Rwanda really is a rapidly modernizing society, but in truth, have also made achieving the promise of a middle-class future all but impossible for some trapped beneath them.

* * *

To be sure, Rwanda has made tremendous progress in many areas since the genocide, and Rwandan women are, in many ways, in a better position than they were two decades ago. Certainly elite women in government, NGOs, and business have more rights and financial stability than ever before, and there is some hope that their progress will eventually trickle down to the masses. Perhaps most importantly, the country has not seen a resurgence of violence.  

Yet for ordinary Rwandan women, paying for rent, school fees, and food is extremely difficult, as "good jobs" are scarce. Beneath the façade of gender equality and strong development in general, discontent is slowly growing -- a discontent exacerbated by young men, too, who find themselves unemployed and desperate.

This growing unhappiness raises the specter of social instability in Rwanda, something neither the government nor its international backers want. Indeed, if the country can't repair the shortfalls of the policies that built its shining present, inequality and popular dissatisfaction are likely to grow. The better future promised to all Rwandans may never come.

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