Unlike the militant movement Al Shabab in Somalia, AQAP has never taken control of significant swaths of territory in Yemen. But Ansar al Sharia pledged to do just that, declaring an Islamic Emirate in Abyan. Once Ansar al Sharia and its allies solidified their grip on Zinjibar, they implemented an agenda aimed at winning hearts and minds. “Ansar al Sharia has been much more proactive in attempting to provide services in areas in Yemen where the government has virtually disappeared,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. “It has claimed that it is following the Taliban model in attempting to provide services and Islamic government where the central government in Yemen has left a vacuum.”
Ansar al Sharia repaired roads, restored electricity, distributed food and began security patrols inside the city and its surroundings. It also established Sharia courts where disputes could be resolved. “Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia brought security to the people in areas that were famous for insecurity, famous for thefts, for roadblocks,” says Abdul Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist who regularly interviews Al Qaeda leaders and has spent extensive time in Zinjibar. “The people I met in Zinjibar were grateful to Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia for maintaining security.” While the militants in Abyan may be bringing law and order, this is, at times, enforced with horrifying tactics such as limb amputations against accused thieves and public floggings of suspected drug users. In one incident in the Ansar al Sharia–held town of Jaar, residents said they were summoned to a gruesome event where militants used a sword to chop off the hands of two young men accused of stealing electric cables. The amputated limbs were then paraded around the town as a warning to would-be thieves. One of the young men, a 15-year-old, reportedly died soon after from massive blood loss. On February 12, Ansar al Sharia in Jaar publicly beheaded two men it alleged had provided information to the United States to conduct drone strikes. A third man was executed in Shebwa.
In mid-January, Ansar al Sharia overran parts of another town, Radaa, 100 miles southeast of Sanaa, resulting in a fresh round of government shelling and street battles between government forces and Ansar al Sharia and AQAP. “The threat of Al Qaeda is now real and can’t be underestimated, especially now that they have found supporters and a safe haven from which to operate,” says Sumali.
The taking of Zinjibar could be an indication that AQAP is effectively exploiting the growing power vacuum in Yemen. But what could be more dangerous is that support for AQAP’s agenda is indigenously spreading and merging with the mounting rage of powerful tribes at US counterterrorism policy and Washington’s years of support for the Saleh regime.
By late 2011, the United States had largely withdrawn its military assets from Yemen, including Special Operations forces, leaving much of the coordination for Yemen ops to the US forces stationed in the East African nation of Djibouti, where the United States has a large military base. The US-backed Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and Republican Guard forces no longer operated under the tutelage and direction of their US sponsors. CTU commanders told me in January that they don’t even have ammunition for their US-supplied M4 assault rifles. As battles raged at the premier front line in Abyan in late December/early January, Yahya Saleh, the US-backed head of the CTU, was nowhere to be found in Yemen. When I visited a CTU training base outside Sanaa, his men claimed not to know where he was. Senior Yemeni officials also said they had no idea where he was—other than that he was out of the country. They said they did not know when he would return. Eventually, in mid-January, Yahya posted pictures of himself online, hanging out in Havana with the family of Che Guevara.
Rather than fighting AQAP, these US-backed units—created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations—redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people. The US-supported units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime,” says Iryani. “In the fighting in Abyan, the counterterrorism forces have not been deployed in any effective way. They are still here in the palace [in Sanaa], protecting the palace. That’s how it is.” President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged late last year that the “political tumult” has caused the US-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”
The Obama administration was very slow to agitate for Saleh’s departure from power, in large part because of counterterrorism concerns. On January 28, Saleh arrived in New York, ostensibly for medical treatment, eliciting charges from his opponents that the United States was protecting him from the wrath of his people. For years, Saleh allowed the United States to regularly strike against AQAP in Yemen, and US Special Operations forces built up the specialized units, run by Saleh’s family members, that were widely seen as US surrogates. Saleh’s government actively conspired with US officials to cover up the US role in Yemen, at times publicly taking credit for US bombings. Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government’s cooperation. “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure,” Brennan declared in September.
But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen. Whether a new government would continue the same type of counterterrorism relationship Saleh had with Washington is very much in question. In a series of interviews, Mohammed Qahtan and other leaders of the main opposition group, the Islah Party, sharply criticized US airstrikes in Yemen and the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, saying that they should have been put on trial in Yemen. Qahtan, the leader of Islah’s Muslim Brotherhood faction, charged that under Saleh, “The Yemeni government behaved in the war on terror as a contractor for the US,” adding that if Islah and its allies take control of the country, “we will not be contractors for the US, implementing what they want according to the money we receive. Our slogan is, ‘We are partners, not contractors.’”
The past several months have opened a window onto the emerging US counterterrorism approach post-Saleh. When the political crisis began to deepen in Yemen late last year, the Obama administration decided to pull out most of the US military personnel in Yemen, including those training Yemen’s counterterrorism forces. “They have left because of the security situation,” Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Saleh’s foreign minister, told me at his office in Sanaa. “Certainly, I think if they do not return and the counterterrorism units are not provided with the necessary ammunition and equipment, it will have an impact” on counterterrorism operations. Now the United States is doubling down on its use of air power and drones, which are swiftly becoming the primary focus of Washington’s counterterrorism operations.
By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen. While the United States is largely absent on the ground now in Yemen, it continues coordination with Yemeni intelligence on counterterrorism operations. In late January the United States carried out a series of airstrikes in Abyan, and, according to Sumali, US forces conducted at least two other strikes around Zinjibar that “targeted Al Qaeda leaders who are on the US terrorist black list,” though he adds, “I did not coordinate directly in these attacks.” According to Sumali, US helicopters have—on several occasions—flown in supplies for the 25th Mechanized. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in Abyan. “It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence,” Sumali says. “Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes.”