"You are not the first strangers to come our way," says Mohammad Salah, a young Bedouin, as he adjusts the dagger, cellphone, and beeper on his colorful embroidered belt, lays down his two Kalashnikovs, and recounts the story of three travelers. Five months ago, the men showed up in this remote village and asked for protection. "It is not our custom in this tribe to ask questions," he explains. "We simply welcome our brothers."
The strangers rented three mud-brick houses for $30 apiece. They moved in with their Landrovers, satellite phones, and computers, locked their doors, prayed alone, and refrained from chewing the ubiquitous stimulant, khat. When government officials began asking questions in late November, the men sneaked away in the dark of night.
The men are believed to be top Al Qaeda operatives and are wanted by the US and Yemen. Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal is wanted in connection with the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors.
Qaed Salim Sunian al-Harithi, and an Egyptian known only as "Ayman," are also believed to be top Al Qaeda officials.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has vowed to track down the suspects and crush their bases of support. But critics say the real battle is ending the grinding poverty that breeds extremism.
"These tribes are not harboring the terrorists out of ideological reasons, but rather financial ones. They want schools, clinics, work. They become extreme only because of these shortages," says Ahmed Al Kibsi, professor of political science at Sana University. He says the US needs to be patient and stop issuing veiled threats. "If the US strikes, it will only weaken its allies in the government here and hurt the cause in the long run," he says.
Yemeni special forces, led by the president's son Col. Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, led an attack on this dusty village of several hundred in December. Eighteen soldiers and 6 tribesmen were killed in the raid. Villagers say six adults and four children were killed. Government forces imprisoned 20 sheikhs and the sons of 43 sheik from the Abida tribe. The suspects were long gone, however. They are believed to be roaming the vast desert dunes.
President Saleh, with intelligence cooperation from the US, has deployed military brigades. He has also cracked down on several known radical Islamic schools. The government has been deporting 115 foreign students who had been attending the schools, either for entering the country illegally or overstaying their visas.
The US has a sense of urgency. "We are working on two tracks now - prosecution of terrorists and prevention of further attacks. And our priority is the latter," says Edmund Hull, US ambassador to Yemen, and the State Department's former coordinator for counterterrorism. "We know these three men are key cogs in the machine that make the Al Qaeda mechanism work. They are directly supported by scores of others, and have thousands of sympathizers."
The US acknowledges the efforts made by Yemen, and counts as a measure of success the fact that the terrorists have been forced to flee their traditional strongholds, Hull says. "But the bottom line," he says with emphasis, "is that we now want results."
Yemen, a fertile land at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and one of the oldest inhabited regions on earth, has come to be known over the years for less favorable reasons. Osama bin Laden's father came from the Hadramawt region in the east, and Mr. bin Laden himself is said to retain strong Yemeni ties. One of his wives is Yemeni, as are many of his followers. One of the hijackers of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11 was of Yemeni decent.
Seventeen of the 158 Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are Yemenis. Several Yemeni passport holders were implicated in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and Yemeni Al Qaeda members are accused of orchestrating the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden.
Two weeks ago, a top Al Qaeda member held in Kandahar told US authorities of a terrorist plot in Sana last month that led to the temporary closure of the US Embassy consular office here. In June, the consular office was closed for a month following a similar threat.
The government says the terrorist attacks have hurt Yemen's tourism and business. The country's modest oil wealth cannot sustain its 17 million people.
Following the USS Cole attack, the country lost an estimated $1.5 billion in tourist revenues. And since Sept. 11, hotels, restaurants, flights, and souks have all but emptied. So there is very little direct criticism of the president's decision to fight terror in general - but there are doubts about the effectiveness and sincerity of his campaign.
"The situation here is helpless, and when you feel hopeless and have no opportunities within the establishment, it creates hatred and frustration with this establishment and anyone associated with it," says Abdual Aziz Almsaodi, lecturer in modern Arab history at Sana University. "This is a tribal state.... It's the Wild West here, and the government does not have even close to enough money ... to pacify all these tribes."
The government has "treated the Marib [region] terribly," says Jamal Adimi, a lawyer who heads the local nongovernmental forum for civil society. "And even though that region is oil rich, the money due to those tribes has gone into the pockets of officials. As long as the US is watching, there will be talk of development. Then, when attention moves elsewhere, so will the money."
The government says it is doing all it can to fight terrorism and ease poverty. "If you want to sell unsound and untrue ideas - you look for ignorance and poverty. And that is exactly what is going on with these tribes," says Abdullah Wali Nasher, a former health minister. "The solution to extremism is to concentrate on poverty, and we know this.... People will be busy with jobs, agriculture, and tourism, and will stop thinking about the keys to heaven. But none of this can happen overnight. We are on the right track."
Sheikh Mohsen Bin Ali Moeli, a leader of a branch of the Abida tribe, was released from jail last week, in exchange for a half dozen of his sons and nephews. The government told him to go home and talk to his people, and says it won't release the children until the tribe proves it is cooperating with the search for the three suspected terrorists.
"The government said they are in our desert. That we are protecting them," says the elderly sheikh. "But we don't know which direction they took, and the desert is so large, so open. How can we help?"