In Yemen's Capital, Fearful Talk of War with al-Qaeda

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Yahya Arhab / EPA

Yemeni men walk in the courtyard of Al-Saleh Mosque in the capital of Sana'a

Special for TIME by GlobalPost

Shopkeepers are whispering in the medieval, walled Old City in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, about a war they cannot yet imagine. Workers, students and the old men who sit outside the ancient mosques are wondering what fighting between al-Qaeda and the government would look like. Would it be like the conflict in the north, where extremist insurgents occupy villages with gunfire and government bombs rain down from the sky? Is al-Qaeda an army or just a bunch of ill-equipped gangs? "All citizens are scared," says Jamal al-Najjar, an English-language translator, while waiting for a group of foreign journalists at the airport. The visible influx of overseas media, hungry for stories, adds to the sense of crisis.

Change is rare in this city where men drink tea on cobblestone streets wearing white thobes and ornate, traditional knives. But al-Qaeda is growing, and the government is posturing. A showdown is approaching, and people are nervous. "These extremists, they are bad people," says Ali Mohammad Risk, a medical student, as he strolls along the Saila, a winding brick highway that fills with water when it rains.

In Sana'a, war has always been near. Rarely, however, does it breach the mountains that are topped with military bases and surround the capital. Much of the populace credits Yemen's President of 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, with unifying north and south Yemen in 1990 and with holding on to the unification during a civil war four years later. "You should have seen it," Ghalib Onkumah, a teacher, says, shaking his head and making a face. In the dark days before Saleh took over, there were endless tribal and civil wars, he says. Onkumah, like many Yemenis, is confident that Saleh will maintain control of the country despite the looming threat of state failure.

An insurgency in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and the growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) all threaten the state, while a water crisis and relentless poverty threaten the people. Resources have become even more scarce with constant waves of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Meanwhile, the government, which has little power outside of the cities, is disorganized and weak. The ministries and the parliament technically have some power, but almost all leaders are connected — if not actually related — to the President. Nepotism and corruption are an everyday occurrence, and the television and print media are overwhelmingly state-run.

However, state-run media has taken a back seat to foreign journalists, who have been coming to Yemen since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, is said to have been trained and armed by Yemeni-based AQAP. The threat from AQAP led to the closing of foreign embassies in Sana'a, including the U.S. and British ones. While the embassies have quietly reopened, people are wary that al-Qaeda, in the form of foreigners or locals, may be operating in the capital.

"We don't want the impression that Yemen is the harbor of those terrorists," said Prime Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohy A. al-Dhabbi. "No, it's the other way around. They came here. We don't know about them." Indeed, Yemenis point out that the three most infamous al-Qaeda-linked figures from their country came from elsewhere: Abdulmutallab is Nigerian; Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who may have inspired both Abdulmutallab and accused Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was born in New Mexico and studied at U.S. colleges; and John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, who grew up in San Francisco, was captured in Afghanistan and is now serving time in a U.S. prison.

People who knew Abdulmutallab and Lindh are stunned that those young men turned out to be notorious figures. Muhammed al-Anisi, director of the Sana'a Institute for Arabic Language, where Abdulmutallab studied, was also the director of CALES, another Arabic language school, when Lindh was a student there in the late 1990s. He says he never thought Lindh or Abdulmutallab were capable of violence and stresses that the schools teach language, not religion. "These people cheat us," he says. "It's very bad for us as a school, and Yemen as a country."

But many people believe they are being cheated by Saleh and view him as the leader of a corrupt élite who lives in luxury while almost half of the 23 million people in Yemen subsist on less than $2 a day. In the center of Sana'a, the Al-Saleh Mosque, a gleaming palace that can hold 40,000 worshippers, outshines every building in the area, perhaps in the country. The mosque cost at least $60 million to build, an unheard-of fortune in Yemeni currency, the rial. In stark contrast to the majesty of the mosque, impoverished Yemenis languish in a dusty beige slum across the street. Yemen's urban poor often live in makeshift homes built with found items like tarp, tires and rocks. There is never running water, and electricity comes from wires that are jerry-rigged to government power lines. "Inside [the mosque] you see you are in paradise," says Khaled al-Hilaly from his nearby office at the Yemen Times, one of the few newspapers not funded by the government. "Then you go out, and then you are in hell."

Ali al-Roussi, who supports his 10 children and two wives as a day laborer, carrying soda from trucks to shops, says he is fed up with politics. He makes about $30 a month, including government benefits for the poor, because many days he cannot find work. Al-Roussi, 31, used to vote but has grown disgusted with the largesse and corruption at the top — and the suffering in the slums. "This is the only opportunity the President gives us," he says, referring to his work carrying soda. "I swear to God, if I could go to Somalia, I would."

Murdock is a journalist based in Yemen for GlobalPost, an international news website.