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Nasser al-Bahri, alias Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (© Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi /)
Nasser al-Bahri, alias Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (© Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi /)

Yemen's terrorists stray from bin Laden Add to ...

They call themselves al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but one of Osama bin Laden's closest former associates says the group that has grabbed the world's headlines doesn't share the ideology of the al-Qaeda founder.

"They have targeted Saudi and Yemeni authorities, even though al-Qaeda took jihad to the non-believers, not to Muslims," said Nasir al-Bahri," Mr. bin Laden's former bodyguard.

"Sheik Osama is perfectly capable of attacking Yemen or Saudi Arabia, but he doesn't want to," Mr. al-Bahri said in an interview. "I believe that if Osama bin Laden gave these people an instruction, they would do the opposite."

Led by Yemenis Nasir al-Wahayshi, 32, and Qasim al-Raymi, and by Saudi Said al-Shehri, 35, the new guard have "formulated their own ideology," Mr. al-Bahri said.

They attempted an assassination of Saudi Arabia's security chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, last summer, and have staged and threatened several attacks against the Yemeni government.

Quite apart from the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner for which the group also claimed credit, Mr. al-Bahri said, "they are giving the Americans an excuse to come and occupy this place." U.S. President Barack Obama, however, has said the United States has no intention of invading Yemen.

Mr. al-Bahri, 37, served Mr. bin Laden from 1997 to 2000, reportedly saving his life on several occasions. In one attack, he was wounded in the leg and the al-Qaeda leader personally nursed him back to health.

Born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, Mr. al-Bahri got a business degree in Jeddah before joining Muslim forces fighting Serbs in Bosnia; then moved on to Somalia and Afghanistan.

He returned to Yemen with his wife in 2000 to visit her family, and was arrested shortly after the attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors - an attack, he insists, he had nothing to do with.

After 22 months in prison - 13 of them in solitary confinement - and a promise to go straight, Mr. al-Bahri, settled in Sanaa. Now, a father of five, he teaches business administration and says he wants no part of the current group that calls itself al-Qaeda.

"There is a huge difference" between al-Qaeda and these people, he says.

"Sheik Osama never took a serious step against anybody until he heard the views of religious authorities," Mr. al-Bahri said.

These new guys, however, are a law unto themselves, he says. "They accuse people of being non-believers and then attack immediately without any consultation.

"If some Salafist or other religious scholar were to criticize the behaviour of this group, I'm sure they would accuse the scholar of being a non-believer."

The new guard have modelled the group's behaviour after that of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who led a fierce Islamist movement in Iraq from 2002 to 2006, Mr. al-Bahri said.

"Zarqawi didn't agree with Sheik Osama either," he said. "He spent more energy fighting other Muslims than he did Americans.

"I personally persuaded more than 80 young Yemeni men not to go to Iraq," he said. "The new generation follows Zarqawi's way."

Of medium height, defined features and a trim beard, Mr. al-Bahri cuts a fine figure as he walks the student neighbourhood of Sanaa in stylish blue jeans and a scarf thrown over his shoulder.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh doesn't deserve the attacks the new guard have made against him, Mr. al-Bahri says.

"Sure there may be corruption and problems here, but Saleh has been fair," he said.

"He welcomed back the men who fought in Afghanistan [against the Soviet Union]and gave them jobs."

Al-Qaeda has never forgotten that, he said.

Mr. al-Bahri says the Yemeni government is right in its assessment of the size of the al-Qaeda threat it faces. "There are no more than 500 operatives in Yemen," he said, "and no more than 40 of them have come from outside the country."

He said he is not surprised the government is cracking down on the group, but hopes it will not resort to U.S. assistance in doing so.

A better way, he suggests, would be to have religious scholars debate these men and convince them of the error of their ways. "The old guard, including me, is prepared to debate them, too."

What's important, Mr. al-Bahri says, is that the Americans not be allowed here in any form.

"We want to attract the Americans to fight on al-Qaeda's choice of battlefields: Afghanistan and Somalia - not in Yemen."

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