As we make our way with General Sumali down the abandoned highway, we pass the May 22 “Unity” Stadium, which was meticulously refurbished for the November 2010 Gulf 20 soccer tournament. It was meant to serve as a symbol that Yemen was safe for tourists. Indeed, thousands flocked to the country—many from neighboring Saudi Arabia and East Africa—to cheer for their teams. Luxury hotels were built for the occasion, and foreign dignitaries, including a few heads of state, came to Yemen for the opening ceremonies, which were presided over by President Saleh. A campaign involving “moderate” clerics from other Arab nations was simultaneously launched, called “the Battle of Hearts and Minds Against Al Qaeda.”
Six months later, the new hotels were vacant, and the stadium had become an emblem of instability. During the fighting over Zinjibar, the militants seized the stadium and Sumali’s forces had to shell it to force them back. As we drive past it, the damage is clear in the charred ruins of the upper rafters.
We pass the first front line on the outskirts of Zinjibar, “Tiger 1,” and drive a half-mile to “Tiger 2.” Sumali reluctantly agrees to let us get out. “We will only stay for two minutes,” he says. “It’s dangerous here.” The general is soon besieged by his men. They look thin and haggard, many with long beards and tattered uniforms or no uniforms at all. Some of them plead with Sumali to write them notes authorizing additional combat pay. One of the soldiers tells him, “I was with you when you were ambushed. I helped fight off the attack.” Sumali scribbles on a piece of paper and hands it to the soldier. The scene continues until Sumali gets back into the Toyota. As we drive away, he speaks from his armored vehicle through a loudspeaker at his men. “Keep fighting. Do not give up!”
Sumali tells me he cannot “confirm or deny” that Ansar al Sharia is actually AQAP. “What is important for me, as a soldier, is that they have taken up arms against us. Anyone who is attacking our institutions and military camps and killing our soldiers, we will fight them regardless of if they are Al Qaeda affiliates or Ansar al Sharia,” he says. “We don’t care what they call themselves. And I can’t confirm whether Ansar al Sharia is affiliated with Al Qaeda or if they are an independent group.”
Jeremy Scahill: Yemen’s Saleh Has Played the United States
The capture of Zinjibar came at a time when the Saleh regime was disintegrating and its attention was focused squarely on confronting the mounting campaign to bring down his government. “Ongoing instability in Yemen provides [AQAP] with greater freedom to plan and conduct operations,” the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, alleged to the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 31. “AQAP has exploited the political unrest to adopt a more aggressive strategy in southern Yemen, and it continues to threaten US and Western diplomatic interests.” Clapper concluded bluntly, “AQAP remains the [Al Qaeda] node most likely to attempt transnational attack.”
There is no question that AQAP took advantage of the moment, shrewdly recognizing that its message of a Sharia-based system of law and order would be welcomed by many in Abyan who viewed the Saleh regime as a US puppet. The US missile strikes, the civilian casualties, an almost total lack of government services and a deepening poverty all contributed. “As these groups of militants took over the city, then AQAP came in and also tribes from areas that have been attacked in the past by the Yemeni government and by the US government,” says Iryani, the political analyst. “They came because they have a feud against the regime and against the US. There is a nucleus of AQAP, but the vast majority are people who are aggrieved by attacks on their homes that forced them to go out and fight.” According to statistics published by the US Agency for International Development, “insecurity displaced more than 40,000 Zinjibaris in 2011.”