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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.
Qaid, who was killed in the August drone strike, fell somewhere in the middle of his two brothers. A religious man, he likely joined al-Qaida via Islamic study groups linked to cleric Zindani, but also maintained a presence within the tribe. Until his death, he is widely thought to have been a rising figure within AQAP’s core group of ideologues.
Tensions within the Dhahab family grew with the rise of al-Qaida in Yemen. The terrorist group became a household name following its 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors.* During the next 10 years, al-Qaida’s presence in the country grew in fits and spurts. In 2006 a jailbreak freed nearly two dozen militants, including Nasser al-Wahishi, Osama Bin Laden’s former secretary and the man who in 2009 oversaw the merger of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of al-Qaida into AQAP.
Wahishi and a growing network of supporters capitalized on the unrest wrought by Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising, capturing territory and expanding their influence throughout 2011. By January 2012, Tariq had decided to stage an Ansar al-Sharia takeover of Rada’a, the heartland of Dhahab tribal power, a move that brought the family feud to a dramatic head.
Marching into town, Tariq and his band of militants fanned out across the city and promised to impose Islamic law, angering some residents while enamoring others. After weeks of tribal mediation, a compromise was reached. Tariq would withdraw his troops if the government released 15 al-Qaida prisoners—including his brother Nabil, who had been held by Yemeni authorities since being sent back from Syria.
But Tariq and his followers only withdrew as far as Manasseh, the Dhahabs’ home village, located just outside Rada’a city. That only put the problem more squarely on the family’s shoulders. Hizam was in the area at the time and was growing tired of the militants holing up in the village. After a few weeks, he’d had enough.
Following evening prayers, Hizam confronted Tariq at a local mosque and demanded he and his men leave town. The discussion quickly deteriorated, tempers flared, and Hizam shot Tariq, killing him on the spot. Hizam quickly retreated to his house for cover, and a battle with Tariq’s supporters erupted.
When the dust settled, more than a dozen were dead, including Hizam, who was killed when Ansar al-Sharia fighters—potentially led by Qaid—car-bombed his house. Also killed were another Dhahab brother named Ahmed, who fought alongside Tariq, as well as another relative who backed Hizam.
The Dhahab family was in ruins, shattered. “[Al-Qaida] destroyed my family,” said Khaled on many occasions, alternately on the verge of outrage or tears. He blames the family’s demise on the country’s top politicians.
Khaled believes that Yemen’s political elite—from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to top Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, along with the influential Al-Ahmar tribal family and Zindani—are encouraging, if not supporting, terrorism in pursuit of their own ends, with Yemeni citizens like the Dhahab family caught in the middle. But he is far from the first to levy such accusations, and his evidence is no less circumstantial.
As is often the case in Yemen, a country especially ripe with hidden interests and shadowy political maneuvering, decisively assigning fault for decades of spilled blood and heartache is virtually impossible. Ultimately, though, whatever the cause or validity, the Dhahab family name is now notoriously associated with al-Qaida.
“[Today] Rada’a is full of al-Qaida. The Dhahab family is the one that nurtured al-Qaida. They are the ones that embraced al-Qaida,” says Sureima, the tribesmen who knows the Dhahabs, adding that the family’s relationship with the organization might have been even greater had Tariq survived. “If he had lived longer, most of the people [in the area] would have gone with him.”
Today only nine of the 18 brothers are still alive. Nabil is believed to remain a member of AQAP, and some say the torture he faced in Syria has left him with permanent psychological damage. Abdelrauf, who became the head of the family in Manasseh after Hizam and Tariq were killed, skirts the line between an AQAP sympathizer and outright supporter, though reportedly has been leaning toward the latter since Qaid’s death. He was apparently targeted by suspected U.S. drone attacks throughout 2012; one errant strike killed a truck full of civilians.
Even the siblings who manage to lead relatively innocuous lives can’t fully distance themselves from the Dhahab troubles. Khaled, for one, is perpetually distraught, and becomes emotional when the topic of his family comes up. He wants to see the violence end, but can offer only a desperately vague solution: “Now, what we need to do is focus on [eliminating] the centers of terrorist production”—a reference to going after the politicians whom he sees as responsible.
In the meantime, despite Yemen’s post-Arab Spring efforts to promote dialogue, reconciliation, and inclusion, the Dhahab family remains deeply divided. And while Qaid may have been the latest brother to succumb to the violence, he likely won’t be the last.
*Correction, March 3, 2014: This post originally misstated that the attack on the USS Cole was in 2001. It was in 2000. (Return.)