In Yemen, a woman’s life entangled with al-Qaida

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In this photo taken on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, Himyar al-Qadhy, whose brother Adnan, was killed in 2012 by U.S drone strike east of Sanaa, Yemen, points to what he says is the rocket that killed his brother, a Yemeni army brigadier suspected of involvement in a militant attack in 2008 against the US Embassy in Sanaa. The brother denies that Adnan was a member of the al-Qaida. The portrait on the wall shows his late brother. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, Himyar al-Qadhy, whose brother Adnan, was killed in 2012 by U.S drone strike east of Sanaa, Yemen, points to what he says is the rocket that killed his brother, a Yemeni army brigadier suspected of involvement in a militant attack in 2008 against the US Embassy in Sanaa. The brother denies that Adnan was a member of the al-Qaida. The portrait on the wall shows his late brother. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, Afnan, 6, holds a picture of her father Bandar al-Hassani, who was killed in a US drone strike last year sits betwee her grandparents Omar al-Hassani, and Khadija Hassan. Beside Bandar, al-Hassanis lost two more sons, one in another US drone strike in 2013 and third during fighting between al-Qaida militants and government forces in 2012. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, Army Maj. Gen. General, Mujally al-Moradi, commander of the military police, looks at photos of his men killed fighting a band of al-Qaida militants who stormed the Yemeni defence ministry in Sanaa on Dec. 5, 2013. Al-Moradi personally led the battle which lasted 19 hours. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Yemeni girls study at a school on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said it has provided food assistance as incentive to encourage families to send their daughters to school. Girls at school would receive take-home rations, sufficient to provide nutritional support for a family of seven. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Abeer al-Hassani’s ex-husband was famed for his beautiful voice. He used it, she says, singing poetic hymns to martyrdom and jihad to try to draw youth from their neighborhood of the Yemeni capital into joining al-Qaida. He sang at weddings of fellow members of the terror group, and held discussions with young men at local mosques.

“One woman complained to me that her son wanted to go fight in Iraq after speaking with him,” the 25-year-old al-Hassani recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.

For most of her young life, al-Hassani has been entangled with al-Qaida through family bonds she has tried to shake off. Three of her brothers became fighters for the group, and all three are now dead, two of them killed by U.S drone strikes on consecutive days in January 2013.

Her story provides a rare look into one of the most dangerous branches of the terror network, which has withstood successive blows and yet continues to thrive. It has moved to fueling conflict elsewhere in the region, sending fighters and expertise to Syria and to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Her ex-husband, Omar al-Hebishi, backed up his recruiting with cash. During their four-year marriage, she says, he received large bank transfers or cash delivered overland from Saudi Arabia — money, he told her, that was to support the families of “martyrs.” She and al-Hebishi divorced in 2010.

A month ago, he left for Syria to fight alongside al-Qaida-inspired extremists — but not before trying to recruit the older of their two sons, 8-year-old Aws, to come with him by showing the boy videos of al-Qaida fighters jogging and swimming.

“Mom, I want to go because they have a swimming pool,” Aws told her, al-Hassani said.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known, has been hit hard in the past few years. A U.S.-backed government offensive in 2012 drove it out of southern cities that it seized a year earlier. Relentless U.S. drone strikes have killed several senior figures and dozens of lower-level fighters, keeping the group on the run.

Still, several Yemeni security officials said al-Qaida has spread to operate in every province of the country of more than 25 million. Al-Qaida’s branch demonstrated its capabilities with a sophisticated and brutal attack in December on the Defense Ministry in the capital, Sanaa, that killed more than 50 people.

The group benefits from Yemen’s political instability since the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. While his replacement Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is battling the group, Saleh’s loyalists still infusing security and intelligence agencies have quietly backed al-Qaida fighters to keep the government unstable, the officials told the AP. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press.

“The former regime forged a close relationship with al-Qaida,” said Fares al-Saggaf, an adviser to Hadi. In the southern province of Abyan “entire army camps have been handed over to al-Qaida.”

Al-Saggaf said al-Qaida is on the ropes, in large part due to the drone strikes. He said sympathy for the group has fallen, particularly after the December attack, during which fighters broke into a hospital inside the Defense Ministry complex and killed patients, doctors and nurses. Hadi ordered security camera footage of the bloodshed released to the public, a move al-Saggaf said “dealt the image of al-Qaida a serious blow.”

But al-Hassani’s tale illustrates the pull that al-Qaida has in a society where poverty is rife, the population is deeply conservative and many resent a corrupt government and abuses by security forces.

“I can guarantee you that my two sons, Aws and Hamza, will follow in the footsteps of their father if we stay in Yemen,” al-Hassani said. “We need to get out of Yemen.”

Diminutive and soft-spoken, wearing an enveloping black niqab veil and robes that leave only

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