“Abu Jandal, In the name of Jihad…”

Image by François-Xavier Trégan. Yemen, 2008.

Nasser al Bahri, 36 years old, calmly disclaims all names given to him: "terrorist" by the United States, "infidel" by Islamists, embarrassing persona for Yemeni authorities, and role model for the younger generation… "So which one would you like to talk to?" the Yemeni asks. The former bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden has come to terms with the entirety of his experiences, but taken one by one in the context of the path he's taken and the apprenticeship he's received.

Born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, the young Nasser was molded by newspapers and television. During the 1980s the first Intifada engulfed the Palestinian territories, and the images taken together showed a continuous chain of killing and torture. From that moment on, Nasser decided to be the defender of "good deeds, guided by emotion". It is thus that one day in 1994 he told his incredulous father of his commitment to the Jihad, and soon after secretly left the family home after morning prayer. Destination: Bosnia.

The fight against the Serbs was an obvious ticket with no return, but alas, the Dayton accords took away his chances for martyrdom. Spared a certain sacrifice in Bosnia, he nevertheless earned a new last name—Abu Jandal, "The Killer". His "career as a professional holy warrior" had begun.

Short stints in Somalia and Tajikistan preceded the revelation of Afghanistan in 1996; In the northern mountains of this new country he was approached by faithful followers of Commander Massoud, around whom he experienced Islam with an unusual twist: "alcohol, drugs, sporadic prayer…", Bahri lists one by one. This continued until the day he came into direct contact with the Taliban in Kabul, which brought him back onto the correct path and prompted new encounters.

In Jalalabad, Osama Bin Laden explained to him the war he'd just declared on the United States: "Abu Jandal, you must understand my struggle" Bin Laden whispered, whom Jandal, from that moment forward, would call the Sheikh.

Jandal began seven months of instruction in various training camps, but the Yemeni was more devoted to reading than handling weapons. Al-Qaeda's leader himself was nourished, adds Nasser, by a library of "3,000 works"…which fostered both discussions and confidence. Abu Jandal entered into the movement's intimate circle as Bin Laden's personal bodyguard and head of public relations. Even today he can still repeat without hesitation every word from the oath of allegiance sworn before the Emir, the Baïa.

Within a few months, Bin Laden's used his "network" to implement a new strategy, that of terrorism: the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, the attack on USS Cole in Yemen…and September 11, 2001. Nasser didn't participate in any of these operations.

However, when the American destroyer was attacked while at anchor in Aden in October 2000, he happened to be visiting the Sana'a Book Fair, and his reputation had already begun to spread. Consequently, he was arrested at the airport while attempting to fly back to Afghanistan and sentenced to two years in prison for collusion with terrorists.

In 2001 his father visited him in Sana'a prison with his grandson in his arms: "I won't discourage you anymore," he gently whispered to his son. From his individual jail cell and eight days after the fact, he learned via the Mosque's loudspeaker of the attack on the World Trade Center … Three FBI agents soon arrived, determined to make Bin Laden's confidant talk.

Yemen, however, managed to avoid social unrest and appease its allies at the same time— no Guantanamo Bay for Bahri: Instead, he was released 22 months later in exchange for his total renunciation of armed violence. He signed the document because he was convinced that the jihad had changed sufficiently enough to justify his decision.

"Al-Qaeda today? It no longer exists; it's now more of a media slogan than a reality. Iraq doesn't need warriors, it needs money. As for Yemen, no one knows who does what, nor for what reasons." Bahri denounces individual actions guided only by personal interests and lost in an unclear ideology. He scoffs at opportunists who "in Yemen, with a handful of qat leaves and some video cassettes, sell the idea of sacrifice in Iraq or Afghanistan to the most destitute and ignorant."

His criticism has been put forth, and it only attracts commiseration from the Islamists in the capitol, who accuse him of being an "infidel." To such a point, in fact, that he's been restricted to the small confines of an apartment located just a few steps from the American Embassy. Without work, the Jihadist must check in every month at the police station.

Today, he consecrates all his time to the creation of a study center dedicated to Jihad called "Al Jihal" ("generations), which is set to open in January 2009.Its purpose is to bring back onto the right path all those wayward crusaders who have been blindly recruited onto the battlefields by the "orators," whom Abu Jandal denounces.

Yemeni authorities have discreetly supported his initiative, but it goes without saying that they won't contribute a single Riyal for fear of angering their American friends. President Saleh has committed himself to "reeducating" Yemeni prisoners who have returned from Guantanamo, who represent the largest contingent in the American prison. A center specially devoted to these detainees will open soon in Sana'a, but it's not certain whether the parallel pedagogy proposed by Bin Laden's ex-confidant will reassure Washington…

In the meantime, Nasser Bahri receives guests. He kindly refuses an offer from youngsters who have come to ask him to go shooting in the neighboring mountains. He explains "his current Jihad" to all others: "to work towards the fulfillment of self, of one's family, and of others through faith."

Abdallah, Mohammed and Ali have come to greet the one whom they hold as a "role-model." These young men have not discarded the idea of an armed Jihad "if need be," for Abu Jandal himself acknowledges a few deviations from his own principles: "The education of men," he explains, "must sometimes include the use of arms in order to safeguard and defend."

The weapons have been set aside, the journey continues.

Sana'a, December 2008

Correspondent of Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Yemen
Correspondent of France 24 TV, la Radio Suisse Romande (RSR), RTL
Collaborations to Rue 89, Le Monde Diplomatique, Radio Vatican…

France Culture radio documentary

France Culture project on Guantanamo Bay