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SANA’A, Yemen—On the morning of Aug. 30, 2013, in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Khaled al-Dhahab’s phone rang. The villager on the other end relayed the news Khaled had long dreaded: His brother, Qaid, was dead.
Hours earlier, Qaid al-Dhahab had been returning from a wedding celebration to his home near the rural city of Rada’a, roughly 160 miles southeast of Sana’a, when a torrent of missiles flew from the sky, turning the car in which he rode into a smoldering heap. Qaid, who by most accounts was a rising leader in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—considered the most active and dangerous branch of the global terrorist network—had been a target in a suspected U.S. drone strike.
Khaled was not vengeful—he said Qaid had “chosen his path.” He was, however, upset—distressed that his once-proud family keeps finding itself mixed up in al-Qaida and the West’s so-called war on terror.
Yemen is not unaccustomed to violence. On a per-capita basis, it is the second-most-heavily armed nation on Earth (after the United States), and following the country’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011 there has been an uptick in political violence, terrorist attacks, and purported U.S. drone strikes that combined have led to thousands of casualties across Yemen. But even so, the Dhahab family has been particularly hard-hit. In the past two years, Khaled, a plump, middle-aged man made fidgety by years of violence, has lost at least four brothers, a cousin, and countless more distant relatives to fighting.
The Dhahabs’ woes began in the late 1980s with the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Dhahab, the family patriarch and a powerful tribal leader. He was the father of 27 children—18 boys and nine girls—by seven different wives (though never more than the four at one time permitted under Islam). This massive and complicated household was held together by tradition, tribal bonds, and, largely, Ahmed himself. But facing his absence and the tense Yemeni political situation at the time, the family began to fracture and soon drifted apart.
Over the subsequent decades, the brothers went in drastically different directions. Ali al-Dhahab, among the older of the siblings, assumed his deceased father’s role and remained the head of the family—and an elected member of parliament from 1993 until his death of diabetes in 2010. Another brother, Hizam, also aligned himself with various government factions. But at least three others—Tariq, Qaid, and Nabil—are known to have joined al-Qaida or one of its armed offshoots.
At its root, the family division is based on blood relations. Hizam and Ali shared the same mother, while Qaid, Nabil, and Tariq were born to another woman. Khaled and others outside the family say that Ali did not equitably distribute the family’s wealth and land after his father’s death, and what resources he did dole out went disproportionately to his maternal siblings.
As financial pressures mounted, some brothers looked for other sources of support. “[My brothers] joined al-Qaida because the circumstances were difficult,” Khaled says. “They were the children of sheikhs, and were seen as important people in society. But there was no money.”
As a young man, Nabil joined al-Iman University, a well-known center of Sunni religious teachings founded by Abdulmajid al-Zindani, a firebrand cleric the U.S. government has labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. By the mid-2000s, the devoutly religious Nabil had decided to join the ongoing jihad in Iraq against the American invasion. His plan was to travel via Syria, but in 2006, Syrian authorities arrested him. After being detained, interrogated, and allegedly tortured, Nabil was deported back to Yemen.
Tariq took a different route. A gregarious, well-respected tribesman, Tariq’s motives were more pragmatic than religious. According to Khaled, Tariq saw al-Qaida “as a bridge” to greater personal prominence inside Yemen.
It’s difficult to discern how Tariq entered the al-Qaida fray, though it appears to have been through tribal channels. He gained particular notoriety when his sister married Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike. By then, Tariq was a rising leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group that is thought to have emerged in recent years as an AQAP attempt to rebrand itself inside Yemen. Although arguably less ideological and more mercenary in its pursuits, it is essentially an extension of al-Qaida.
“[Tariq] was eloquent, logical, and solved people’s problems,” says Ali Abu Sureima, a tribesman from a district nearby the Dhahabs, explaining how Tariq’s personality and popularity helped him leverage the organization as a platform for self-advancement.