1997, 26 September — Yemen: My meeting near Al Qa’idah town

My introduction to the Engineer
Taken to al Qa'idah town

Friday 26th September 1997 started as I expected; a well practiced routine of checking out of hotels and planning to sign over machine acceptance forms before making my way to an airport and a flight home.  It was a five-hour road journey just to get to the international airport in Sanaa for an early afternoon departure, so time was already tight. 

Upon entering the customer's reception office there was already a scene as people gathered, most of whom I’d barley even spoken to during my six-day visit, and a suggestion was made we have a group photo. I was five-hours drive from the airport, I was already running late and apparently going nowhere until I had agreed to this photo. They insisted I wear local dress and produced a jambia dagger for me to wear, but I produced my own, one I had purchased the day before. As I secured the jambia dagger at my waist an office side door opened and the man I had seen briefly in the factory the day before entered the room. The Chief introduced him, "This is the Engineer”.

I think I looked perplexed, asking, “But if he's the Engineer, why haven’t we been introduced before?”

“He’s working on other projects” the Chief replied without explanation and before I had chance to question further the photo group was being convened. 

‘the Engineer’ had watched me throughout the exchange with no apparent intention of interacting to me. He didn’t offer his hand or any acknowledgement to me but was suddenly besides me with his arm around me for this bizarre group photo. One thing I noted that had stuck in my mind was his shoes - at first I thought they were orthotic, to compensate for an injury or growth abnormality. But then I noticed both shoes had the same thinkness of sole, about 4” high - he was wearing platform shoes. 

Everyone else seemed very pleased to be involved, even taking a second shot so that everyone in the room had been included - it seemed quite an event for them which for the life of me I could not understand. I had travelled a fair bit and had noted the habits of different cultures when it came to taking photographs and I simply assumed this was one such habit, or quite possibly a joke at my expense. I wasn’t happy, but what could I do? 

Other than Dino I barely or didn’t know the people I was stood besides; no one else was wearing a very poor attempt at traditional Yemeni dress as I was, and I was no closer to Sanaa or my flight home. As the last photos were taken on mine and another camera the group broke up. The Engineer left the room without a word and without looking back. Everyone dispersed without ceremony or particular courtesy and I was taken to a waiting jeep by the Chief’s PA. We departed without any sense of urgency but I had my machine acceptance form signed and I was heading in the right direction, or so I thought.

I wasn’t looking forward to the five-hour journey with the Chief’s PA. Since first beckoning me into the YemPak compound upon my unannounced arrival by taxi almost a week before, until the photo session just a few minutes ago he had been noticely frosty with me. I’d assumed this is because I had missed the arranged driver sent to collect me from Sanaa airport on that first day, and as my main liason point during my visit the PA had probably arranged that driver waiting at the airport for me.

From being very friendly whilst dressing me for the photo, now alone in the jeep and ten-minutes into the journey he hadn’t said a word, breaking the silence with a very concerning "I am taking you to a meeting”

A dozen scenarios passed through my mind in the following seconds, none of which I liked. My first response was to say no, instisting that any further delay would mean me missing my plane. He looked me in the eye, once again smiling and animated and simply said The plane will wait for you   before taking a well practiced right turn on to a dust track and in a moment we were driving through farmed fields, between scattered dwellings and farms, heading toward the foothills of a looming mountain range.

This video shows my route from Taiz to al Qa'idah town and the meeting place 

Mohamad was driving at quite a speed, focused on the route and ignoring my protests, maybe once saying “Don’t worry”. He visibly became more confident as the track deteriorated into a dry sand gully and finally looked at me again, but only to grin as we took an almost invisible track leading into a narrow gap through some trees. This felt more like a roller coaster than a four-wheel drive. I watched our route and the tree line we were approaching and then just as I looked back to the PA I saw a couple of buildings ahead and a couple of men who appeared to be expected us. The jeep stopped in the shade of the trees before the first buildings and without a word the PA got out and disappeared from view. I was suddenly very alone. I never saw the PA again but I do recall his name because I kept pronouncing it wrongly; he was called Mohamad.

There were two men waiting for us. I stepped out of the jeep and probably reached for a cigarette but was urged by a gesture to follow one of the men. He took me to the first doorway and into a large but spartan room with just a long table flanked by chairs or benches and placed parallel to the back wall, opposite the door way. Again without a word he indicated I should sit down and wait; I spent the next ten-minutes watching the door and formulating a plan. 

I'd read of two types of kidnapping in Yemen; the first was a not uncommon ‘hospitable detention' of tourists - this was by peaceful Yemeni tribes or villagers with benign demands such as local government funding of a school, a medical centre or clean water supply. I believe great hospitality was extended to the captives who were treated as guests and there were even travellers-tales that some crazier people would actively seek such kidnapping, just for the 'experience’. But there was also a new and far more violent phenomena, kidnappings by foreign extremists demanding the release of their brothers-in-arms from US custody. This second type of kidnapping usually ended with a beheading or a botched rescue attempt.

I attempted to leave the room holding a cigarette to show my intention but I was ushered back before I had reached the door. Plan B: if I couldn’t walk out of there then I may as well try to get kicked out. I’d read of a previous “hospitable” kidnapping of a tourist who was then released before any ransom had been asked, never mind offered. This was supposedly due to his poor personal hygiene and bad habits. That was the only time that I knew of a kidnapped person being released so easily and so that was my plan - to be obnoxious and hope I got kicked out of whatever situation I had found myself in. I appreciated that this tactic might also lead to my early demise, but at this point anything was preferable to the months or years of confinement in a cellar or cave I was envisioning. Was that a plan? Was it my plan? I’m not 100% sure, but it certainly crossed my mind as did many other thoughts, all with just one intention - getting to the airport in Sanaa as soon as I could.

Without announcement a large figure blocked the sunlight that was streaming in through the doorway, momentarily I saw his face & dress as he entered the room. He was immediately followed by another figure in the doorway, then another, and another - I lost count but about ten-men had walked in file into the room. I didn’t stand and tried not to look anyone in the eye; I just sat with a steady gaze on the tabletop infront of me. The silence was uncomfortable and no one engaged with me so I maintained my submissive posture; these were practical and experienced looking men. The best description of their clothing I can give is resembling the 1980s Mujahadeen I had seen on the television news, but I saw no weapons, they weren’t wearing any camouflage gear or any sign of militarisation other than a seemingly coordinated discipline.

The men sat down quietly, following the lead of the man besides me at the head of the table. My mind was a blur; I had been kidnapped once before, during the Cenepa War border conflict between Ecuador and Peru in 1995. I had been given something laced with a drug called burundanga (Devil’s Breath) that takes away all free will. I’d describe it as being hypnotised, leaving you following your kidnappers instructions like a trusting child. I was rescued by the Ecuadorian army within a few hours, as the impoverished band of kidnappers tried to smuggle me out of the economically significant oil industry town of Coca in the Amazon jungle. Now sat in a strange room in a hidden gully in Yemen, with ten-men seemingly waiting for my next move, my state of mind was the same - a sense of helplessness. 

Food was served and we each had a plate of vegetables in front of us and there was a large central plate filled by a generously sized joint of freshly roasted meat. I decided to start eating immediately and with some haste - my only thought being to continue my journey home. I think looks were exchanged around me before others began to eat their vegetable portions too. Still not a word had been spoken since I had stepped out of the jeep. I felt very, very alone and did not try to converse with these men at any point.

As it seemed I had prompted the other men to begin eating the vegetable dishes, to speed things up I decided we should also commence with the communal meat dish. I reached over and tore off a generous piece of the roast to enjoy with my vegetables. I tried not to look at anyone as I did this, focused simply on finishing the meal and continuing my journey home to Manchester.

Whether intentionally or not I got the result I wanted. Before I had even tasted the meat now on my plate the man besides me at the head of the table stood abruptly. He was followed almost in unison by the other men, a silent pause hung in the air as the men waited over their virtually untouched meal; I remained seated, maintaining an averted gaze. The head of the table was the first to leave, followed almost ceremoniously by the others. I remained seated for another thirty seconds before a different man walked in, dressed for town rather than the practical dress of the other men. He looked at me and the table before beckoning me out. The Marlboro red cigarrete already between my lips was lit as I stepped back into the sunlight; I still didn’t know if this was the beginning or the end of a rather unnerving episode on my journey.

I drew heavily on my cigarette as I walked towards the idling jeep that had already been turned around. As I approached it I saw a new driver behind the wheel, somone I didn’t recognise. Aware that this jeep could still be taking me somewhere I really did not want to go, I paused before it. I was trying to workout what had just gone on - something had happened - but once again for the life of me I could not work out what. 

I was hurried into the waiting jeep which retraced our route back to the main road and without looking at or speaking to me for the entire journey the new driver dropped me at Sanaa International Airport a few hours later. I was late for my flight but sailed through the airport like a VIP and was escorted individually to a plane on the tarmac already loaded with passengers. We were airborne before I knew it and as I relaxed I tried to put the day's events in to some sort of context. 

Pondering on what had actually happened I made no connection between YemPak and this bizarre last experience. YemPak was a very well funded international company with a very well educated and polite staff. My conversations and experience there were little different to my extensive and varied travels elsewhere. Dinner with Youssef had been a highlight of my visit, a pleasant evening with good company. And the more I thought about the unscheduled meeting the more I thought I had just committed a grave social mistake and had unwittingly offended what may have been a simple offer of local hospitality.


I had no concept that ‘the Engineer’ I had just met was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or even who KSM was. I had no idea that Yousef had been vetting me the night before prior to these meetings with KSM and then with members of al Qaeda, an organisation I doubt I had even heard of in 1997. The waiting plane had struck me as odd, but I had dismissed the idea of a plane being made to wait for me as beyond the realms of possibility. 

There was someone who did know of 'al Qaeda warehousing foreign nationals in Yemen in 1997’ - that was the British government. And the US and Yemeni governments. How this multi-million dollar project and associated machine sales got unquestioned export licences or why I wasn’t contacted by our security services before or after my visit still perplexes me. My only conclusuion is that despite knowing that al Qaeda were operational in Yemen, the British government and security services had no interest whatsoever in monitoring or addressing that presence. This assessment by myself was confirmed in 2009 when I made my first report to MI-5 and MI-6; they simply were not interested, to the extent that they appeared not to want to know details of al Qaeda linked companies in Britain, a situation that remains unchanged to this day.

Truly, for some of us nothing is written, unless we write it