26 September 1997, Yemen: Meeting ‘the Engineer’ (KSM) & visiting Al Qa’idah

Meeting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Friday was my return journey day, departing Taiz 8:00 a.m. for a five hour drive to Sanaa and an early afternoon fligh home, although there was still the machine acceptence form in the YemPak office. After being collected from my hotel at 8:00 a.m. instead of going to the office I was dropped of at the factory building. I was still waiting there an hour later, at 9:00 a.m.

I’d seen the machine operators briefly, taken my installation photo and to occupy the time was entering customer details into my Psion palm top computer. Finally the Chief (Saeed Alrobaidi) came to get me, saying the signed acceptance forms were waiting for me in the office. Frustrated, thinking I’d already missed my flight, I asked the Chief his name for my data base. When he said ‘Alrobaidi’ I asked if ‘Al' just meant ‘the’. He smiled and said yes; that’s why I entered his name as Saeed Obaidi, rather than Alrobaidi YemPak customer database entries.

The Chief led the way to the main office block on top of the hill and I followed him to an office on the first floor. Mohamad (general manager) and Dino (Ahmed al Darbi, the mechanic) were there, as was Alrobaidi’s assistant. Someone suggested we have a group photo. They insisted I wear local dress icluding a jambia dagger and they had all the items to hand - this was planned. As they finished dressing me a side door opened and the man I'd seen briefly in the factory the day before entered the room. The Chief introduced him:

"This is the Engineer” he said. 

I asked: “If he's the Engineer, why haven’t we been introduced before?”

“He’s working on other projects.” Mr Alrobaidi replied.

And before I had chance to question further, the Chief convened the group photo. ‘The Engineer’ had watched me with no apparent intention of interacting. He didn’t offer his hand or acknowledgement me but was suddenly besides me with his arm around me for this bizarre group photo. One thing that stuck in my mind was his shoes - at first I thought they were orthotic, to compensate for an injury or limp. Then I noticed both shoes had the same thinkness of sole, about 4” high - he was wearing platform shoes. 

The Chief took the first photos, on my camera and a second camera, before he and his assistant swapped places and the second photo was taken. Everyone else seemed pleased to be involved, but I was just thinking of my flight. I wasn’t happy, but what could I do? The Engineer left the room without a word and everyone else dispersed without ceremony. I was handed my signed acceptance form and Mohamad said he was driving me so I followed him outside his jeep. 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.

Google Maps route from HSA Group HQ to my meeting place by Al Qaidah town

Visiting The Base by Al Qa’idah town: I wasn’t looking forward to the five-hour journey with the Mohamad. Since my unannounced arrival by taxi almost a week before and until the photo session just a few minutes ago he'd been noticely frosty with me. I had missed the driver sent to collect me from Sanaa airport on that first day, and I kept mispronouncing his name, so it was understandable. But then he was very friendly whilst dressing me for the photo, and now alone in the jeep Mohamad was incommunicado again. He broke his silence about twenty-minutes into the journey by saying,

 “I'm taking you to a meeting.”

“No!” I protested “We’re already late for my flight.” 

Smiling again, Mohamad simply said The plane will wait for you.   

Within a few seconds he took a well practiced right turn by a house, past a couple more buildings, and we emerged on a dust track running beside empty farm fields to our right. The ground to our left soon rose up in to towering cliffs of crumbing sand and shale. I gripped the door handle, a dozen scenarios passed through my mind in the following seconds, none of which I liked. I glimpsed a lone farm worker watch us pass-by from a patch of fields tucked into an alcove on our left. 

Mohamad was driving at quite a speed, focused on the narrow dust track. After about five mintues we turned off to the left into a field with a large building by the entrance. But we passed the building and continued on towards a shed at the bottom of the field and for a moment I thought that was our destination. But as soon as we reached the shed we turned left and onto a barely visible track. I protested again and Mohamad told me not to worry. We passed through some scrub and then turned right on to what looked like a dry sandy river bed. Mohamad turned to me and grinned, clearly enjoying himself. This felt more like a roller coaster than a ride to the airport. The jeep made short work of the sand and within a hundred metres we were heading towards a treeline on the right. A gap appeared in the trees and we turned between them and onto another track. Mohamad accelerated before coming to an abrupt halt in front of two single story concrete buildings. Then he was gone.

Google Maps meeting location

Before I’d caught my breath in order to say something, Mohamad had got out and closed his door, disappearing from view. I saw two men standing by the buildings and I froze in my seat. One of the men beckoned to me to get out of the jeep and I got a cigarette ready to light but didn’t have chance before being ushered into the building on the right. He showed me into a large room furnished with just a long trestle table and seating. He indicated I should wait. I sat down then tried to step outside for a cigarette, but I was ushered back in. Whatever was going on, it was out of my hands; I felt like a prisoner.

I was aware of two types of kidnapping in Yemen; the first was a not uncommon ‘hospitable detention' of tourists by Yemeni tribes or villages with benign demands on the government, such as funding for a road or clean water supply, a medical centre or school. That kind of ‘kidnap victim' was treated as a guest and there were rumours 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 had been kidnapped once before, during the Cenepa War border conflict between Ecuador and Peru in 1995 and was thankfully rescued by the army. I’d been spiked 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 and in to the Amazon jungleNow sat in a strange room in a secluded valley in Yemen my state of mind was the same - a sense of helplessness. 

I had attempted to leave the room for a cigarette but I was ushered back in before I'd reached the door. I decided if I couldn’t walk out of there then I may as well try to get kicked out; I still had a vague hope of catching flight home. I’d read of a previous kidnapping of a tourist spmewhere whose habits were so repugnant that he was released before any ransom had been paid. 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 enough not to be tolerated. I appreciated that this tactic might also lead to my early demise, but at that 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 on time.

Within a few minutes my hosts/ kidnappers arrived, around ten of them walked in file into the room. I didn’t stand up and kept my head down, trying not to look anyone in the eye. The men sat down at the table around me. I’d describe of their clothing as resembling the 1980s Mujahadeen I had seen on the television news, but I saw no weapons and they weren’t wearing any camouflage gear or carrying any military kit. 

Individual plates of vegetables were placed in front of us and a large communal plate filled by a joint of freshly roasted meat was placed in the centre of the table, but not one word had been said. Slowly my companions began to eat the vegetables in front of them with their hands; I followed suit. After a minute or two, and seeing this was going to take forever, I decided to start on the main course - reaching across the table and helping myself to a hand full of the central meat dish. I didn’t watch their reaction but after a moment or two the man at the head of the table stood up, abandoning his plate and striding out of the door followed by everyone except myself. Quite soon someone came in and beckoned me out. I walked back to the jeep that had been turned around and was waiting to leave, but now with a different driver and no sign of YemPak’s general manager Mohamad. I had a cigarette lit before I’d reached the jeep; there were a few men about but again I kept my eyes to the ground and after a few blasts of nicotine I nervously got back in the jeep. No one had said a word during the entire visit and now I was leaving with a stranger who also remained silent for the next four hours as we drove to Sanaa.

I was whisked through a deserted Sanaa airport like a VIP and true to Mohamad’s word the plane was waiting for me - engines running and passengers boarded. As soon as I sat down the aircraft began to taxi towards the runway and my mind raced with the day's events.

WORK-IN-PROGRESS

Links to .pdf files of my photo contact sheet — diary entires — YemPak customer database entries
Satellite images of the HSA Group HQ & YemPak and the view from Taiz to Al Qa’idah town
Google Maps HSA Group HQ at PO Box 5302 Taiz & Route from HSA Group HQ to Al Qaidah

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