" ... On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label 'Made in the USA,' and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested. ... "
By Jeremy Scahill
The Nation, March 13, 2012
Abdulelah Haider Shaye. Credit: Iona Craig.
On February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The two discussed counterterrorism cooperation and the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of the call, according to a White House read-out, Obama “expressed concern” over the release of a man named Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whom Obama said “had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.” It turned out that Shaye had not yet been released at the time of the call, but Saleh did have a pardon for him prepared and was ready to sign it. It would not have been unusual for the White House to express concern about Yemen’s allowing AQAP suspects to go free. Suspicious prison breaks of Islamist militants in Yemen had been a regular occurrence over the past decade, and Saleh has been known to exploit the threat of terrorism to leverage counterterrorism dollars from the United States. But this case was different. Abdulelah Haider Shaye is not an Islamist militant or an Al Qaeda operative. He is a journalist.
Unlike most journalists covering Al Qaeda, Shaye risked his life to travel to areas controlled by Al Qaeda and to interview its leaders. He also conducted several interviews with the radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Shaye did the last known interview with Awlaki just before it was revealed that Awlaki, a US citizen, was on a CIA/JSOC hit list.
Shaye had no reverence for Al Qaeda, but viewed the group as an important story, according to Sharaf. Shaye was able to get access to Al Qaeda figures in part due to his relationship, through marriage, to the radical Islamic cleric Abdul Majid al Zindani, the founder of Iman University and a US Treasury Department–designated terrorist. While Sharaf acknowledged that Shaye used his connections to gain access to Al Qaeda, he adds that Shaye also “boldly” criticized Zindani and his supporters: “He said the truth with no fear.”
While Shaye, 35, had long been known as a brave, independent-minded journalist in Yemen, his collision course with the US government appears to have been set in December 2009. On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike. The Pentagon would not comment on the strike and the Yemeni government repeatedly denied US involvement. But Shaye was later vindicated when Wikileaks released a US diplomatic cable that featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own parliament about the US role, while President Saleh assured Gen. David Petraeus that his government would continue to lie and say “the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Seven months after the Majala bombing, in July 2010, Sharaf and Shaye were out running errands. Sharaf popped into a supermarket, while Shaye waited outside. When Sharaf came out of the store, he recalls, “I saw armed men grabbing him and taking him to a car.” The men, it turned out, were Yemeni intelligence agents. They snatched Shaye, hooded him and took him to an undisclosed location. The agents, according to Sharaf, threatened Shaye and warned him against making further statements on TV. Shaye’s reports on the Majala bombing and his criticism of the US and Yemeni governments, Sharaf said, “pushed the regime to kidnap him. One of the interrogators told him, ‘We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue.’” Eventually, in the middle of the night, Shaye was dumped back onto a street and released. “Abdulelah was threatened many times over the phone by the Political Security and then he was kidnapped for the first time, beaten and investigated over his statements and analysis on the Majala bombing and the US war against terrorism in Yemen,” says Shaye’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman. “I believe he was arrested upon a request from the US.”
Shaye responded to his abduction by going back on al Jazeera and describing his own arrest.
In the meantime, Sharaf was encountering his own troubles with the Yemeni regime over his drawings of President Saleh and his criticism of the Yemeni government’s war against the minority Houthi population in the north of Yemen. He had also criticized conservative Salafis. And he was Shaye’s best friend.
On August 6, 2010, Sharaf and his family had just broken the Ramadan fast when he heard shouting from outside his home: “Come out, the house is surrounded.” Sharaf walked outside. “I saw soldiers I had never seen before. They were tall and heavy—they reminded me of American Marines. Then, I knew that they were from the counterterrorism unit. They had modern laser guns. They were wearing American Marine–type uniforms,” he recalls. They told Sharaf he was coming with them. “What is the accusation?” he asked. “They said, ‘You’ll find out.’ ”
As Sharaf was being arrested, Yemeni forces had surrounded Shaye’s home as well.
For that first month, Sharaf and Shaye did not see each other. Eventually, they were taken from the national security prison to Yemen’s Political Security prison, where they were put in a cell together.
Shaye was held in solitary confinement for thirty-four days with no access to a lawyer. His family did not even know where he had been taken or why. Eventually, his lawyers received a tip from a released prisoner that Shaye was in the Political Security prison and they were able to see him.
On September 22, Shaye was eventually hauled into a court. Prosecutors asked for more time to prepare a case against him. A month later, in late October, he was locked in a cage in Yemen’s state security court, which was established by presidential decree and has been roundly denounced as illegal and unfair, as a judge read out a list of charges against him. He was accused of being the “media man” for Al Qaeda, recruiting new operatives for the group and providing Al Qaeda with photos of Yemeni bases and foreign embassies for potential targeting. “The government filed many charges against him,” says Barman. “Some of these charges were: joining an armed group aiming to target the stability and security of the country, inciting Al Qaeda members to assassinate President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son, recruiting new Al Qaeda members, working as propagandist for Al Qaeda and Anwar Al-Awlaki in particular. Most of these charges carry the death sentence under Yemeni law.” As the charges against him were read, according to journalist Iona Craig, a longtime foreign correspondent based in Yemen who reports regularly for the Times of London, Shaye “paced slowly around the white cell, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.”
When the judge finished reading the charges against him, Shaye stood behind the bars of the holding cell and addressed his fellow journalists.
In January 2011, Shaye was convicted of terrorism-related charges and sentenced to five years in prison, followed by two years of restricted movement and government surveillance. Throughout his trial, Shaye refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court and refused to present a legal defense. Human Rights Watch said the specialized court where Shaye was tried “failed to meet international standards of due process,” while his lawyers argue that the little “evidence” that was presented against him relied overwhelmingly on fabricated documents. “What happened was a political not judicial decision. It has no legal basis,” says Barman, Shaye’s lawyer, who boycotted the trial. “Having witnessed his trial I can say it was a complete farce,” says Craig.
Several international human rights groups condemned the trial as a sham and an injustice.
There is no doubt that Shaye was reporting facts that both the Yemeni and US government wanted to suppress. He was also interviewing people Washington was hunting. While the US and Yemeni governments alleged that he was a facilitator for Al Qaeda propaganda, close observers of Yemen disagree. “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of his work,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University who had communicated regularly with Shaye since 2008. “Without Shaye’s reports and interviews we would know much less about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula than we do, and if one believes, as I do, that knowledge of the enemy is important to constructing a strategy to defeat them, then his arrest and continued detention has left a hole in our knowledge that has yet to be filled.”
As the US ratcheted up its efforts to assassinate the radical cleric Anwar Awlaki, among the charges leveled against him was that he praised the actions of the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan. A key source for those statements was an interview with Awlaki conducted by Shaye broadcast on Al Jazeera in December 2009. Far from coming off as sympathetic, Shaye’s interview was objective and seemed aimed at actually getting answers. Among the questions he asked Awlaki: How can you agree with what Nidal did as he betrayed his American nation? Why did you bless the acts of Nidal Hasan? Do you have any connection with the incident directly? Shaye also confronted Awlaki with inconsistencies from Awlaki’s previous interviews. If anything, Shaye’s interviews with Awlaki provided the US intelligence community and the politicians and pro-assassination punditry with ammunition to support their campaign to kill Awlaki. (Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike on September 30, 2011.)
After Shaye was convicted and sentenced, tribal leaders intensified their pressure on President Saleh to issue a pardon.
In February, Shaye began a brief hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, ending it after his family expressed serious concerns about his deteriorating health. While international media organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, have called for Shaye’s release, his case has received scant attention in the United States. Yemeni journalists, human rights activists and lawyers have said he remains in jail at the request of the White House. Some had hoped that when President Saleh stepped down earlier this year, Shaye might be released.
That seems unlikely if the US government has any say in the matter. “We are standing by [President Obama’s] comments from last February,” State Department spokesperson Beth Gosselin told The Nation. “We remain concerned about Shaye’s potential release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We stand by the president’s comments.” When asked whether the US government should present evidence to support its claims about Shaye’s association with AQAP, Gosselin said, “That is all we have to say about this case.”
When Craig recently questioned the US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, about Shaye’s case, she says Feierstein laughed at the question before answering.
For many journalists in Yemen, the publicly available “facts” about how Shaye was “assisting” AQAP indicate that simply interviewing Al Qaeda–associated figures, or reporting on civilian deaths caused by US strikes, is a crime in the view of the US government. “I think the worst thing about the whole case is that not only is an independent journalist being held in proxy detention by the US,” says Craig, “but that they’ve successfully put paid to other Yemeni journalists investigating air strikes against civilians and, most importantly, holding their own government to account. Shaye did both of those things.” She adds: “With the huge increase in government air strikes and US drone attacks recently, Yemen needs journalists like Shaye to report on what’s really going on.”