Why Did Obama Help Lock Up a Yemeni Journalist?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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. “We were only exposed to Western media and Arab media funded by the West, which depicts only one image of Al Qaeda,” recalls his best friend Kamal Sharaf, a well-known dissident Yemeni political cartoonist. “But Abdulelah brought a different viewpoint.”
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. “Abdulelah continued to report facts, not for the sake of the Americans or Al Qaeda, but because he believed that what he was reporting was the truth and that it is a journalist’s role to uncover the truth,” says Sharaf. “He is a very professional journalist,” he adds. “He is rare in the journalistic environment in Yemen where 90 percent of journalists write extempore and lack credibility.” Shaye, he explains, is “very open-minded and rejects extremism. He was against violence and the killing of innocents in the name of Islam. He was also against killing innocent Muslims with pretext of fighting terrorism. In his opinion, the war on terror should have been fought culturally, not militarily. He believes using violence will create more violence and encourage the spread of more extremist currents in the region.”
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. “Abdulelah refused to come out, so they raided his house, took him by force, beat him and broke his tooth,” Sharaf says. “We were both taken blindfolded and handcuffed to the national security prison, which is supported by the Americans.” They were separated and thrown in dark, underground cells, says Sharaf. “We were kept for about thirty days during Ramadan in the national security prison where we were continuously interrogated.”
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. “We were transferred to the political security prison built by Saddam Hussein, his gift to Yemen,” he says. “We were moved from the American gift to the Iraqi gift.” (The Nation could not independently verify Sharaf’s claim of an Iraqi role in the building of the prison. And while the US trains and supports Yemen’s counterterrorism force, it is not clear if that aid has been used for the national security prison). Sharaf was eventually released, after he pledged to the authorities that he would not draw any more cartoons of President Saleh. Shaye would make no such deal.
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. “When Abdulelah was arrested, he was put in a narrow dirty and foul smelling bathroom for five days.I noticed that one of Abdulelah’s teeth was extracted and another one was broken, in addition to presence of some scars on his chest,” recalls Barman. “There were a lot scars on his chest. He was psychologically tortured. He had been told that all his friends and family members had left him and that no one had raised his case. He was tortured by false information.”
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. “When they hid murderers of children and women in Abyan, when I revealed the locations and camps of nomads and civilians in Abyan, Shabwa and Arhab when they were going to be hit by cruise missiles, it was on that day they decided to arrest me,” he declared. “You notice in the court how they have turned all of my journalistic contributions into accusations. All of my journalistic contributions and quotations to international reporters and news channels have been turned into accusations.” As security guards dragged him away, Shaye yelled, “Yemen, this is a place where, when a young journalist becomes successful, he is viewed with suspicion.”
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 are strong indications that the charges against [Shaye] are trumped up and that he has been jailed solely for daring to speak out about US collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
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. “Some prominent Yemenis and tribal sheikhs visited the president to mediate in the issue and the president agreed to release and pardon him,” recalls Barman. “We were waiting for the release of the pardon—it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day.” Word of the impending pardon leaked in the Yemeni press. “That same day,” Barman says, “the president [Saleh] received a phone call from Obama expressing US concerns over the release of Abdulelah Haider.” Saleh rescinded the pardon.
“Certainly Shaye’s reports were an embarrassment for the US and Yemeni government, because at a time when both governments were seeking and failing to kill key leaders within AQAP, this single journalist with his camera and computer was able to locate these same leaders and interview them,” says Johnsen. “There is no publicly available evidence to suggest that Abdulelah was anything other than a journalist attempting to do his job, and it remains unclear why the US or Yemeni government refuse to present the evidence they claim to possess.”
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. “Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment,” he said. When Craig mentioned the shock waves it had sent through the journalism community in Yemen, Feierstein replied, “This isn’t anything to do with journalism, it is to do with the fact that he was assisting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and if they [Yemeni journalists] are not doing that they don’t have anything to worry about from us.”
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.”