In Yemen, a woman’s life entangled with al-Qaida

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) - Abeer al-Hassani’s ex-husband was famed for his beautiful voice. He used it, she says, singing poetic hymns to martyrdom and jihad to try to draw youth from their neighborhood of the Yemeni capital into joining al-Qaida. He sang at weddings of fellow members of the terror group, and held discussions with young men at local mosques.

“One woman complained to me that her son wanted to go fight in Iraq after speaking with him,” the 25-year-old al-Hassani recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.

For most of her young life, al-Hassani has been entangled with al-Qaida through family bonds she has tried to shake off. Three of her brothers became fighters for the group, and all three are now dead, two of them killed by U.S drone strikes on consecutive days in January 2013.

Her story provides a rare look into one of the most dangerous branches of the terror network, which has withstood successive blows and yet continues to thrive. It has moved to fueling conflict elsewhere in the region, sending fighters and expertise to Syria and to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Her ex-husband, Omar al-Hebishi, backed up his recruiting with cash. During their four-year marriage, she says, he received large bank transfers or cash delivered overland from Saudi Arabia - money, he told her, that was to support the families of “martyrs.” She and al-Hebishi divorced in 2010.

A month ago, he left for Syria to fight alongside al-Qaida-inspired extremists - but not before trying to recruit the older of their two sons, 8-year-old Aws, to come with him by showing the boy videos of al-Qaida fighters jogging and swimming.

“Mom, I want to go because they have a swimming pool,” Aws told her, al-Hassani said.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known, has been hit hard in the past few years. A U.S.-backed government offensive in 2012 drove it out of southern cities that it seized a year earlier. Relentless U.S. drone strikes have killed several senior figures and dozens of lower-level fighters, keeping the group on the run.

Still, several Yemeni security officials said al-Qaida has spread to operate in every province of the country of more than 25 million. Al-Qaida’s branch demonstrated its capabilities with a sophisticated and brutal attack in December on the Defense Ministry in the capital, Sanaa, that killed more than 50 people.

The group benefits from Yemen’s political instability since the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. While his replacement Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is battling the group, Saleh’s loyalists still infusing security and intelligence agencies have quietly backed al-Qaida fighters to keep the government unstable, the officials told the AP. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press.

“The former regime forged a close relationship with al-Qaida,” said Fares al-Saggaf, an adviser to Hadi. In the southern province of Abyan “entire army camps have been handed over to al-Qaida.”

Al-Saggaf said al-Qaida is on the ropes, in large part due to the drone strikes. He said sympathy for the group has fallen, particularly after the December attack, during which fighters broke into a hospital inside the Defense Ministry complex and killed patients, doctors and nurses. Hadi ordered security camera footage of the bloodshed released to the public, a move al-Saggaf said “dealt the image of al-Qaida a serious blow.”

But al-Hassani’s tale illustrates the pull that al-Qaida has in a society where poverty is rife, the population is deeply conservative and many resent a corrupt government and abuses by security forces.

“I can guarantee you that my two sons, Aws and Hamza, will follow in the footsteps of their father if we stay in Yemen,” al-Hassani said. “We need to get out of Yemen.”

Diminutive and soft-spoken, wearing an enveloping black niqab veil and robes that leave only her large dark eyes visible, al-Hassani has lived under the full weight of Yemen’s patriarchal society. She was first married off at the age of 15, but she kept running away from her husband, so they divorced after only a month.

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