As the media concentrates on al-Awlaki’s online sermons, his role in the launch of Al Qaeda’s new magazine, and the Yemeni government’s ongoing battle against Al Qaeda, the real Yemen has been drowned out. Yet it is this narrative – that of the vast majority of the population, not of a few hundred militants – that holds the key to better understanding, breaking stereotypes and perhaps ultimately less extremism.
Inside a coffee shop, near King’s Cross station in central London, British-born Yemeni Abubakr al-Shamahi, 21, sips his hot chocolate and talks passionately about his home country. Not once does he talk about extremism. Instead, he talks of corruption and his fear that donors’ money is not properly spent on long-term development, he laughs at Yemeni parents’ matchmaking, and he raves about the beauty of the old city of Sana’a. No one he knows has been influenced at all by the radical sermons of al-Awlaki.
This is the real Yemen. It is not al-Awlaki’s falsified narrative of a West-hating, militant-training Yemen. It is a country of over 22 million people – over 70 per cent of whom are under the age of 25 – struggling for development and the privilege to join the World Trade Organization. On Facebook, this is what the English-speaking youth in Yemen are telling the world. A Yemeni-Canadian, Issmat Alakhali, 32, attracted over 4,500 users to his page, “I know someone in Yemen and he/she is not a terrorist!” which he launched in January. More recently, Atiaf A., another young Yemeni, started a video project called “I’m Yemeni, I’m not a terrorist”.
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