|Al-Qaida in Yemen: AFP/Getty Images|
Dubbed an 'urgent security priority' by the US, Yemen has become a regional hub for al-Qaida. In the first of two special reports, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad meets the group's new fighters
The market at Jaar, a small city in Abyan province in southern Yemen, is on a filthy, dusty road strewn with garbage, plastic bottles, cans and rotten food. Plastic bags fly on the hot wind and feral dogs sniff around the vegetable stalls. Minibuses and donkey carts jostle for space on the crowded street.
Standing in the middle of the chaos is one of the jihadi gunmen for whom the town has become famous. Thin, short, with a well-groomed beard and shoulder-length hair, he is dressed in the Afghan style: shalwar kameez, camouflage vest and an old Kalashnikov. He is either a bandit imposing a protection racket on the merchants or a rebel protecting them from the corrupt regime – and most probably a bit of both.
He waves cheerfully to the people passing by, but few give him a second glance. The jihadis – like the chaos and the filth – are an established part of the landscape of south Yemen. They attend state-run mosques and Quranic learning centres and help fill the ranks of the country's security forces.
Recently, their influence has grown more threatening. In the past two years al-Qaida has established a local franchise in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has claimed responsibility for audacious attacks – including the attempt to assassinate the British ambassador to the capital, Sana'a, earlier this year.
In Yemen, recruits can study ideology and take guidance from militant leaders, including the Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been described as "terrorist number one" by the Democrat chairman of the House homeland security sub-committee, Jane Harman. Awlaki is believed to have given guidance to the so-called underwear bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and to Major Nidal Hasan, accused of murdering colleagues in shootings at Fort Hood.
(Click here to read the full story on the UK Guardian website)