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LA Times — Truth is the first casualty of war

February 1, 2010

Read it here.

By Jeffrey Fleishman and Haley Sweetland Edwards

February 1, 2010

The terrorist who’s dead is still alive.
A perverse contradiction? No, just another day in the Yemen news cycle, where rebels, separatists, extremists and government officials conjure a surreal world of spin, lies and propaganda. It makes one wonder if reality exists at all in this cruel and beautiful land.

Yemen is a testament to the maxim that the first casualty of war is truth. And the conflicts here are many: Civil war in the north, secession pangs in the south, running battles with Al Qaeda across tribal strongholds rich in weapons and oil. Hunkered men with Internet connections and laptops post videos on YouTube and hyperbolic messages on extremist websites challenging the government’s take on everything from body counts to who captured whom when.

In the last month, since the government intensified its war against the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen, news releases posted on the government’s news website killed off almost a dozen enemies of the state who later turned out to be alive. Or if they’re not alive, there’s no proof they’re dead.

“I don’t write anyone is dead until there’s a body,” said an exasperated local reporter. “You show me the body, I’ll write the story.”

New technology

In the good old days, rebels and militants literally were voices in the wilderness, hoping at best to finagle a fax machine or a telex. Today, before a missile explodes or a grave is dug, the music is cued and the word is out. Who to believe on any given afternoon amounts to a gulp and the toss of a coin.

Reportedly. Purportedly. Allegedly.

Words to live by.

The fog of scurrilous sound bites and dicey intelligence drifts through most wars. U.S. news briefings during the Vietnam War were known as the Five O’Clock Follies. Reliable information often takes a while to burn through scrims of calculated illusions and earnest mistakes. But Yemen has a mesmerizing and maddening panache for building puzzles where the pieces don’t quite fit.

In an attack in December, the government claimed to have killed Anwar Awlaki, the radical American-born Yemeni cleric who is said to have had ties to the suspects in the Ft. Hood shootings and the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner bound for Detroit. He turned up alive a few days later.

The same goes for Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi, the Yemeni Al Qaeda leader, who the government claimed had been at a meeting raided by Special Forces in December. Either Wahishi escaped, or he wasn’t at the meeting in the first place, but at any rate, he survived a government press release.

Curioser…

Last month, the government announced it had captured Saeed Ali Shehri, the second in command of the group, when his car overturned while he was trying to evade a checkpoint. A handful of news organizations, including an English-language paper, the Yemen Observer, whose owner is close to the president, reported the story. Then later corrected it, saying that it was another Shehri, Yusuf, who had been killed.

Mmmm. It gets better. Yusuf had (reportedly) died back in October during a shootout in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. Another tidbit left twisting.

Days earlier, the government-run news agency released a statement that two high-level Al Qaeda operatives had been killed in an airstrike on two cars in eastern Yemen. The next day, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hosted a “Thanksgiving dinner” to presumably express gratitude that the two were still alive, according local newspapers. The group published a statement saying no one had died and it warned citizens against believing the government’s “repeated lies.”

The government news agency, meanwhile, sort of pretended the whole thing hadn’t happened. It quietly stopped claiming that either militant was dead; their whereabouts, dead or alive, are unknown.

It’s not only Al Qaeda operatives who pull a Lazarus. In the last six weeks, Abdel Malik Houthi, the leader of the Shiite rebellion in northern Yemen, has been reported slain half a dozen times in government reports and by competing news agencies, only to reappear a few days later on the rebels’ website or YouTube.

The government claimed recently that Houthi had been killed “after he was seriously wounded in an air raid two weeks ago.” It later amended that to say Houthi wasn’t dead, but he had been severely wounded and had a leg amputated. Things got a bit fuzzy; speculation abounded.

Presto. A 38-second video popped up online on Jan. 22. It is not clear when it was made, but it shows Houthi with both legs intact and a dagger stuffed firmly in his belt, denying charges of his passing.

On Saturday, Houthi called for a cease-fire. On Sunday, government troops reportedly killed 20 of his men. Stay tuned.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com Edwards is a special correspondent.

Reporting for this story was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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