Behind al-Qaeda’s bombing at Yemen’s Balqis Temple

A Yemeni informer says authorities knew about the first major attack by al-Qaeda in Yemen, and could have averted it.

Hani Mujahid informant
Hani Mujahid, a former al-Qaeda operative turned informant, says the Yemeni government had known about the attack in advance [Al Jazeera]

Esteve Maso didn’t want to go on the trip that killed his wife. He wanted to go to a Nordic country, not the Middle East. But Marta Borrell had friends who had “told of wondrous things that she wanted to see” in Yemen. Eventually Esteve backed down. “There comes a time when you have to give way,” he says.

Julia Rodriguez had no such reluctance. An energetic, blonde doctor from Catalonia, she was well-travelled in the Arab world and had chosen a trip that was “for travellers, not tourists”. She was looking forward to seeing the skyscrapers made of clay and adobe, the culture and the people.

Hani Mujahid never met Julia, Esteve or Marta. He never met any of the other seven Spanish tourists and two Yemeni guides killed. He never met the many others injured. But Mujahid had hoped that his information would save the tourists and stop his al-Qaeda cohorts from carrying out their plan.

If anyone were to catch you while informing that would have been the end of you.

Hani Mujahid, former al-Qaeda operative turned informant

The morning of the attack

Around mid-morning on July 2, 2007, he was standing in the desert outside Maarib, not far from the site of the attack, with men who would become some of the most notorious leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): Nasser al-Wihayshi, Qasim al-Raymi, Hamza al-Qaiti, and Ammar al-Waili.

Mujahid says he sneaked away to inform two security officials that he was with the men who had prepared a car with explosives to target Spanish tourists. “I was putting myself in danger. I made the call while absolutely terrified.”

“If anyone were to catch you while informing that would have been the end of you.”

At the same time, Esteve, his wife Marta and Julia were travelling together in a jeep from Sanaa towards the Balqis Temple, a 10th century monument dedicated to the wife of King Solomon. “After a few kilometres there was a military patrol, which stopped us,” says Esteve. From then on, two vehicles accompanied the convoy, with no explanation.

After a visit to the town of Maarib, a long lunch at a luxury hotel, and a trip to a nearby dam, the convoy headed to the temple, a relic from the ancient Kingdom of Sheba.

Julia was one of the last to return to the cars. “I wanted to take a picture of the temple without people in it,” she says. “I sat down, closed the door, and what I always do is look at the photos I have taken.”

“When I was doing that, I remember a light, a big one.”

Mujahid’s information had not stopped the attack.

Losing consciousness

It was a camera that saved Esteve from being killed, a Pentax K20. He had been bending down to put it back in its bag.

“I was right behind the seat, and I would say that more or less stopped the blast, something that was not the case with my wife beside me. She was sitting up and that was what killed her.”

Almost immediately, Julia knew what had happened. “When I opened my eyes I found I was in the middle of a pile of metal, with the back of the seat on top of me.”

“I looked behind me, and when I saw the girl, she was hardly bleeding. I was, a lot, but she was hardly at all. Due to her position, the state she was in, I thought unwittingly that she was dead; the shrapnel went right to her brain.”

“After that it seems I lost consciousness.”

It seems I had been asking about my wife, and he told me she wasn't on the survivors' list. I remember those words. He didn't tell me she was dead, and I am very grateful to him for that.

Esteve Maso, Spanish tourist

When she woke up again, Julia’s medical background allowed her to assess the situation quickly. She knew she had badly broken both her feet, crushed under the metal. Shrapnel had severed the tendons in her arms and they were bleeding heavily.

“I tried to put back in place the bits of muscle that were hanging off, the big pieces, otherwise this arm would have been missing a lot of muscle mass.”

To this day she is still receiving treatment and removing pieces of shrapnel from her face, arms and legs. “The muscles push it out, bit by bit, until it reaches skin level. So whenever bits poke out of me, they open me up and remove them.”

“This is about the seventh time I’ve diced with death, the icing on the cake, because I’ve been in three plane accidents, two boat accidents, so I took it philosophically.”

It was only several days after the bombing that Esteve realised Marta had died. A military guard told him.

“It seems I had been asking about my wife, and he told me she wasn’t on the survivors’ list. I remember those words. He didn’t tell me she was dead, and I am very grateful to him for that, but obviously what he meant was perfectly understandable. Then I broke down.”

Closed case

The attack had happened just before sunset. Mujahid says he was returning to the capital Sanaa, where he spoke with one of the young men of al-Qaeda, who told him the bombing had gone ahead.

Mujahid called his uncle, one of the two men he had given information to earlier that day. Later, they met.

“I said to him, ‘What’s the story exactly? I put myself in danger and then I find to my surprise that the operation still took place.’ He said to me, ‘Don’t believe that these people at the top of the pyramid in the country are patriotic or honest people. We are working with a gang and not with a state of law that protects people.'”

Esteve suffered a perforated eardrum and serious cuts and burns to his arms and legs. Today, he would still like to know a lot more about what happened, but he has learned to move on.

“It would be good if someone could explain or say something but there comes a time when what you want is to forget. The effort you make to get them to explain to you, to help you, to tell you something, you gradually let that slip.”

In Madrid, Judge Fernando Andreu headed the investigation into the attack. He sent a police team to Yemen, that compiled an exhaustive forensic report. Al Jazeera has learned that he requested information from the Yemeni government, but received only one file with only basic details.

Later, Spanish investigators requested more. Their findings note that Yemeni authorities did not respond, “despite numerous efforts made”. In the absence of any new information, Judge Andreu closed the case. 

Source: Al Jazeera

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