How Anwar al-Awlaki was sheltered by a sultan in lawless southern Yemen

The US-born al-Qaida leader hid among the Awalik tribe even while drone aircraft circled the skies above

The sultan of the Awalik tribe was tall, old and frail, but his soft voice carried the weight of tribal authority: his pronouncements are adhered to by almost 2 million Awalik tribesmen.

Sultan Fareed is a close ally of the government, but when I met him in August 2010, his tribe was also giving shelter to enemies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the west. The most notorious was Anwar al-Awlaki.

For years, the lawless Shabawa region of southern Yemen havehas been contested by tribal fighters, bandits, jihadis and security forces. It took me a month of meetings in Sanaa and Aden to arrange for my trip down there. Every night I was in Shabawa, drones flew slowly around the skies.

The sultan's village, Saeed, sits on a hill among lush green fields and palm groves, an oasis of high mud towers and fortified compounds - some of them pockmarked with bullet holes from tribal feuds. Next to a castle destroyed by the RAF in the 1950s is the new concrete and marble compound of the Awalik sultans.

Sultan Fareed told me: "Anwar, and with him four or five people, spend the night in their homes and in the morning they do their morning prayers somewhere not far away."

Why, I asked, was Awlaki allowed to stay? He replied: "Al-Qaida haven't killed anyone here. The government haven't asked us to hand him in. If they do then we will think about it."

At the Awlaki family compound, all doors and windows were locked. A boy opened a window in the upper floors, looked down at me, then disappeared back inside.


Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

The GuardianTramp

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