1997, 20 September — Yemen: Business trip to an al Qaeda hotspot

My business trip to Taiz city, Yemen

My six-day visit to Yemen was made at relatively short notice; the technician scheduled to go had read the Foreign Office travel warning for Yemen and refused to travel there on safety grounds. Being a little less risk averse I welcomed the chance, but only once my managing director had sought and received personal assurances from the machine purchase agents that my safety was guaranteed.

I arrived at Sanaa airport at 8-a.m. on a bright, crisp Saturday morning. A driver sent to collect me was waiting in the arrivals hall but he had the wrong name on his sign. So, I found a local taxi driver outside willing to take me the five-hours south to Taiz city, with his friend riding shotgun to assist us along the way. Before arriving in Taiz city with only the PO Box address of the factory I had already enjoyed my first fresh Yemeni coffee and had been introduced to khat - a mild narcotic that is chewed habitually by some Yemenis. 

As we arrived on the outskirts of Taiz city my taxi companions stopped to ask directions; I had neither an address or the correct company name of the factory I was looking for. The local - a random person in the street - looked at me and said something to the effect of “Ah, that’ll be the foreigners compound”. They proceeded to give us directions and within five-minutes we were at the factory compound gates.

Our unannounced arrival at what is a very large and secure compound caused some consternation amongst the numerous uniformed security guards who had peered out of the heavy metal gates. I explained who I was and that I was there to install a machine - a guard told me to wait before the gate was closed tight again. It was then I momentarily glimpsed a figure off to one side, looking over the high compound wall at us; he was in civilian clothes and holding an assault rifle. He disappeared from view after a second or two and that was the last time I saw him or any other firearms during my visit. A few minutes later a man opened the front gate a little and beckoned me inside - I nodded nervously to my taxi companions then stepped inside the gate, leaving my bags in their car.

There was a markedly tense atmosphere inside the compound; a few guards had slipped out of the gate after I stepped in and the gate was closed again. After establishing who I was the man wanted me to follow him up the steep entrance road - I protested that I hadn’t paid my taxi fare or got my bags but he was very insistent, informing me the guards would take care of everything and that I should follow him. We proceeded to the office building besides what appeared to be a parade square on top of the hill. I was briefly introduced to Mr. Saeed, the general manager or ’the Chief’ as he was introduced, before being taken straight to the factory building to unload our pre-delivered machine from its packing case and assembling it ready for testing the next day.

I worked for four-hours that afternoon before being taken to my hotel in the city centre by the same man who had beckoned me in to the compound earlier. His name was Mohamad, the factory’s general manager.

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