In March 2011, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) newly-formed subsidiary Ansar al-Shari’a quietly captured the southern Yemeni town of Jaar, while popular protests engulfed President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s splintering government and military in Sana’a. By the time Saleh’s replacement, Vice President Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi, took office one year later, Ansar al-Shari’a had established seven so-called “Islamic Emirates” — Al Houta, Azzan, Jaar, Maudia, Lawder, Shaqra and Zinjibar — in the impoverished, ungoverned south. The strategic strongholds have enabled the al-Qaeda affiliate to wield sovereignty over much of Abyan governorate, which sits alongside Yemen’s busiest commercial port and fourth largest city Aden, where Ansar al-Shari’a has pledged to go next.
Three weeks after Ansar al-Shari’a commandeered Jaar and three months after anti-government protestors first took to Yemen’s streets, AQAP’s chief Yemeni cleric Adil al-Abab (alias Abu Zubayr) unveiled a new brand of al-Qaeda aimed at winning the hearts and minds of south Yemen’s increasingly impoverished masses. “Ansar al-Shari’a is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of God,” he said to a roomful of “brothers” in an interview posted to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).
“We control Jaar and call on the concept of monotheism while trying to meet the demands of the people,” he said, elaborating plans to restore sewage and electricity and provide other basic public services to Yemenis in the area.
This goodwill campaign, according to Abu Zubayr, was designed to build support for the group’s broader political objectives. “We hope that when the people see us meet their demands they will accept the methodology of the mujahideen and accept the implementation of Shari’a [Islamic law]” (ICSR, April 18, 2011).
Some AQAP experts have interpreted the newfound populist appeal as the beginnings of a Taliban-like movement in Yemen. Indeed, the emir of Ansar al-Shari’a, Jalal Muhsin Balidi al-Murqoshi (alias Abu Hamza), stated this goal in a January 21, 2012 interview with Hayat Aden: “We want to implement the shari’a of Allah in this province [Abyan] and redress [past] injustices. Our goal is to circulate the Islamic model like the Taliban who did justice and provided security.”
In the year since its founding, Ansar al-Shari’a has carried out several food and water distribution campaigns in Abyan and sent shari’a judges and legal scholars to help rural courts that were backlogged with cases (IHS Defense, 2012). In October, the group launched its own media organization, al-Madad News Agency, to promote the public service campaign and further refine its image. One video newsletter pictured militants in Jaar fixing power lines and restoring electricity to its environs (al-Madad News Agency, April 22).
A Yemeni political analyst told Jamestown that the novel recruitment strategy poses big risks. “The most important thing is not how many al-Qaeda operatives there are, but how many sympathizers there are. The most dangerous thing in Yemen are the sympathizers,” he told the author in a recent interview.
Background on Southern Yemen
Southern Yemen has provided fertile ground for Islamic fundamentalists for over two decades. Its largely rural and uneducated population is scattered throughout high desert mountains and remote undeveloped lowlands. The area itself lies at the nexus of multiple geopolitical fault lines: swollen oil tankers from the world’s largest producer, Saudi Arabia, traverse Yemen’s southern coast in the Gulf of Aden, across which boatloads of refugees escape war torn Somalia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in 2011 upwards of 100,000 refugees entered Yemen, most of whom landed along the southern coast. A Yemeni tribal analyst told Jamestown that Ansar al-Shari’a has recently started recruiting Somali refugees who hit land near two of the group’s coastal strongholds, Azzan and Zinjibar.
For much of its history, however, the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula was relatively stable. From 1967 to 1990, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) hailed as the only Marxist state in the Arab World. For over a century before that, the British Empire held dominion over its south Yemeni colony, while the Ottomans battled a religious imamate in the deeply conservative and highly tribalized north (International Crisis Group, October 20, 2011)
The dramatic point of departure from its colonial and socialist past began in 1990, when the politically and economically stronger Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north annexed the greatly weakened post-Soviet PDRY. The two independent states unified to form the Republic of Yemen. Four years later, a short but bloody civil war led by YAR President Ali Abdullah Saleh cemented the south’s new trajectory: Saleh swiftly dismantled the prevailing socialist structure and installed regime-friendly tribal shaykhs in a bid to rebuild tribal social organization, which he had mastered through the art of manipulation in the north.
Over the next two decades, Saleh extended his patronage style of governance across the south through a combination of marriage and tribal alliances, military coercion, bribery and public services. In the process, however, the ex-president’s political machinations also empowered enemies of the state, like AQAP.
Saleh’s preference for tactics over strategy enabled al-Qaeda to slowly build its forces in southern Yemen for years. As the deputy governor of Abyan explained in a 2010 interview in Jaar, “Military campaign[s] cost money. Money for soldiers, for vehicles, then money in prison, money for a court case, so the state says why should we pay three million to fight [al-Qaeda] when we can pay al-Qaeda one million for things to calm down and avoid their evil?” (The Guardian, August 22, 2010) That strategy worked for Saleh in the short term but has clearly had implications for Yemen in the decades since he took power.
Southern Tribes, Yemeni Politics and al-Qaeda
Since the turn of the millennium, Yemen’s two dominant political parties, the General Peoples Congress (GPC) and Islah, have exploited the al-Qaeda threat, according to a Yemeni journalist who has covered the issue for decades. Saleh’s “governing GPC would exaggerate the threat too much, without even seriously working to eradicate it,” he said. “And the main opposition Islah party would belittle the threat to the extent that they were saying, ‘there is no al-Qaeda, there is no danger.’” Each party has also used al-Qaeda as a weapon to weaken the other politically.
With Saleh gone, today the main political obstacle to stamping out al-Qaeda is the Islamist branch of Islah’s three main parties, according to the journalist. For example, “$20 million is currently being spent for a new mosque in al-Iman University, which is a factory of al-Qaeda,” he told Jamestown. Notorious Islamist leader Abdul-Majeed Zindani, labeled in 2004 by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a “specially designated global terrorist,” founded al-Iman. “Zindani University is an al-Qaeda training center, not a mosque. It is exactly like the religious centers in Arbah, in Saada, in Marib,” which have produced many jihadists in Yemen, he said.
The political exploitation of tribes has also exacerbated the al-Qaeda threat, according to a tribal analyst in Sana’a. “The tribesmen had their own problems — wars, revenge killings, land disputes — from before the time of the GPC and the Islamists,” he said. “Saleh exploited this, Islamists exploited this and even al-Qaeda exploited this. Everyone is exploiting these things politically.”
The most powerful tribes in southern Yemen are located in Shebwa Governorate, flanking Abyan’s southern and northern borders. They include Bin Hareth, al-Awalik (Anwar al-Awliki’s tribe), al-Nisi and al-Majalah (where an errant U.S. cruise missile killed upwards of 40 civilians in 2009).” Tribal structure is exceedingly weak in neighboring Abyan, by contrast, which is one of the reasons that extremist religious elements have flourished there for over two decades, and why Ansar al-Shari’a selected the governorate to build its Islamic state.
AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’a’s core belief of imposing shari’a — which would mean replacing tribal law in some parts of Yemen — has presented challenges in tribe-controlled areas. Strong opposition by tribal leaders against Ansar al-Shari’a’s mid-January 2012 coup in Rada’a, a town 130 kilometers south of Yemen’s capital, illustrates the obstacles the young AQAP group faces in spreading outside Abyan (Yemen Times, January 22).
The other main power broker in the south, The Southern Movement, an agglomeration of political parties which have been vying for southern secession since 2007, has traditionally opposed AQAP’s objectives. Based in neighboring Aden, The (armed) Southern Movement has posed one of the greatest challenges for Ansar al-Shari’a’s expansion westward.
Ansar al-Shari’a’s Rise in Jaar
Jaar was the first so-called “Islamic Emirate” that Ansar al-Shari’a founded in the early months of the Yemeni Spring in 2011. Following the coup, militants renamed the town Waqar, which means “respect” or “majesty,” a more dignified name than Jaar, or “hyena,” according to Abu Hamza al-Murqoshi, the emir of Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Masdar Online, March 20).
Jaar has emerged as Ansar al-Shari’a’s de facto administrative capital in Abyan for several reasons. The high desert hamlet is strategically located at the foot of the remote, rugged al-Habilayn mountains, to which militants have in the past sought refuge from invading military forces. In addition, 30 kilometers to the south sits Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan and the second city Ansar al-Shari’a seized last May. Heavily fortified Zinjibar, in turn, lies along the only road leading into Abyan from neighboring Aden. This has provided Jaar strategic cover from which to plan and launch attacks, such as the March 4, 2012 massacre of a Yemeni military garrison outside Zinjibar. The only other road into Jaar winds hundreds of kilometers through the al-Habilayn Mountains and the rugged desert to the north.
Aside from its close proximity to and protection from Aden, Jaar in particular and Abyan in general, were selected as Ansar al-Shari’a strongholds due to the weak tribal structure in the area. The Yaffi tribe, which is aligned with the anti-al-Qaeda Southern Movement in Aden, occupies territory to the north of Jaar and presents one of the few tribal threats to the city. According to Abdul-Hakeem al-Ofairi, Deputy Director of Partners-Yemen in Sana’a, Jaar functions as a hedge against encroachment from Yaffi tribesmen. “Just as with Shaqra in southeast, Jaar is there to protect Abyan from the tribal people,” in its bid to establish an Islamic state there, he told Jamestown.
Jaar has a deep history of Islamic fundamentalism. Following Yemen’s 1990 unification, Islamist sentiment flourished across the south in general and in Jaar in particular. Saleh awarded government jobs, salaries and other perks to religious leaders while vast sums of money flowed into the region from Saudi Arabia to build shari’a teaching centers and mosques.
Meanwhile, veteran mujahideen from the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan worked from Jaar to expand existing jihadist organizations — Islamic Jihad in Yemen (IJY), the Army of Aden Abyan (AAA) — and create new ones: al-Qaeda in the Land of Yemen (AQY) and its successors, al-Qaeda in the Southern Arabian Peninsula (AQSAP) and ultimately AQAP (CTC Sentinel, September 2011).
Jaar was the centerpiece of Ansar al-Shari’a’s spring 2011 rise. “They chose Jaar carefully,” a veteran Yemeni journalist told Jamestown. “The place has history. From the early 1980s, it was a jihadist place housing the AAA; and the strategic port of Aden is right next door. Aden is where they ultimately want to go if they succeed.” Indeed, AQAP cleric Abu Zubayr set out this goal in his online address last April, saying Aden would “fall” after Zinjibar (ICSR April 18, 2011)
The main factor that enabled Ansar al-Shari’a to expand throughout Abyan last year, and which dictates whether the group can achieve its goal of seizing Aden in the future, is the degree to which Yemen’s central government can influence the region. According to one Yemeni analyst, “The main problem today, the essential problem in Abyan and in the southern provinces in general, is the economy. This is why now [some tribes] are close to al-Qaeda. They aren’t finding any other options. The problem is a complete absence of services from the government.”
“Now the young people are unemployed and they don’t have anything to do, so they find these guys,” he said.
Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi’s Response to AQAP — Ansar al-Shari’a
On May 5th, in his first public speech since replacing Saleh in mid-February, President Hadi squarely addressed the Ansar al-Shari’a threat: “The real battle against the terrorist al-Qaeda organization has yet to begin and will not end until we have eradicated their presence in every district, village and position,” he said.
In the weeks before and after his speech, President Hadi carried out an unprecedented military offensive in Abyan. Yemeni ground forces, supported by U.S. and Yemeni air forces, have driven Ansar al-Shari’a from Lawder and Zinjibar and greatly disrupted their presence in Jaar and Maudia (Yemen Times, May 14).
Yemeni journalist Nasser Arabyee said the military assault may not be enough. “Not because al-Qaeda is that big, but because of the size of the geographical area they are patrolling is so massive, because of the unwieldy nature of southern Yemen. Hundreds of troops can get lost easily down there. This is why the American drones are coming everyday.”
Political obstacles also stand in the way of the new president’s way, according to Arabyee. “The new government’s [position vis-à-vis al-Qaeda] might be even weaker now because the Islamists are talking more and more about the sovereignty of Yemen, which we interpret to mean, ‘you shouldn’t fight al-Qaeda.’ In my opinion, there is no sovereignty in Yemen because we can’t even depend on ourselves for one month,” he said.
One of the main objectives of the United States- and United Nations-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) political transition plan, signed by President Saleh in November 2011, is to reform Yemen’s nepotistic military and security forces. Although President Hadi has made surprising progress toward this goal since his February inauguration, deep divisions in the command and control structure remain (Yemen Times, May 21).
Tracing the Movements of Ansar al-Shari’a
Two months after taking Jaar, Ansar al-Shari’a militants stormed Zinjibar, sparking a pitched war that would extend through the summer. United States and Saudi forces provided initial air support for ground advances by Yemen’s 25th mechanized brigade, stationed on the outskirts of Zinjibar. In June, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched an expanded drone program over Yemen to bolster faltering efforts by Yemeni military and security services. Deepening divisions in Saleh’s forces eventually led to the United States takeover of the military campaign in Abyan and surrounding areas.
An hour before President Hadi’s February 25th inauguration ceremony, AQAP claimed responsibility for detonating a car bomb outside the presidential palace in southern Yemen, killing some 26 and injuring 20 others. Later in the day, the President pledged “unwavering resolve to keep the fight against al-Qaeda,” vowing that his administration would “chase them to every cache until they are eradicated, no matter what the cost is going to be” (Yemen Times, February 27).
In retaliation against a sharp rise in U.S. and Yemeni air attacks across southern Yemen following the President’s inauguration, Ansar al-Shari’a soldiers on March 4 bombarded a military base in the Dofes and al-Kowd area outside Zinjibar. The militants killed more than 100 soldiers, took 73 hostage and looted heavy weaponry. In late April, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi authorized a deal by tribal, religious and humanitarian leaders to release the Yemeni hostages from Jaar, where they were being held (Yemen Times, April 30).
During the same period, President Hadi kicked off a string of military offensives in Abyan, which purged Ansar al-Shari’a from Lawder and Zinjibar and weakened their positions in Jaar and Maudia. So-called people’s committees — groups of locals formed to support the Yemeni military’s fight against al-Qaeda — were integral in the dislodging of militants from Lawder (Yemen Times, May 22).
On May 21, Ansar al-Shari’a claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in Sana’a that killed more than 90 Yemeni soldiers while they were rehearsing for National Unity Day to celebrate the twenty-second anniversary of the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990. Ansar al-Shari’a stated on its official Facebook page that the suicide attack was “retaliation” for the “crimes” committed by Yemeni forces in Abyan over preceding weeks (Ansar al-Shari’a statement on Facebook, May 21).
In response to the explosive political upheavals of last year’s Yemeni Spring, which produced a sprawling security vacuum across southern Yemen, AQAP formed Ansar al-Shari’a. According to Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, the group was likely created for two main purposes: to “counter negative publicity surrounding al-Qaeda as well as to appeal to the Yemeni public by providing governance and services in the wake of the central government’s failure.” Its unprecedented territorial expansion throughout Abyan and neighboring governorates may signal the rise of “Yemen’s Taliban,” suggests Johnsen (IHS Defense, March 2012).
However, Ansar al-Shari’a faces many obstacles. With the explicit backing of the United States, Yemen’s new president has pledged to purge AQAP and its affiliate from Yemen’s shores. The Southern Movement in Aden has issued similar if less overt declarations. And as exemplified in Rada’a in January, Jaar in April and Lawder in May, various other civil society actors — tribes, people’s committees, religious and humanitarian leaders — are actively challenging Ansar al-Shari’a’s popular agenda (Yemen Times, May 22).
Nonetheless, lingering instability and insecurity across much of southern Yemen have allowed the AQAP offshoot enough operational freedom to build on past gains and implement future plans. The ongoing military assault by United States-backed Yemeni ground and air forces in Abyan may well dismantle the budding Islamic state there. But as the May 21 suicide bombing in Sana’a illustrated, the battlefield is not limited to Abyan and the war is fueled by revenge.
Casey L. Coombs is a freelance journalist based in Yemen who traveled to the Islamic Emirate of Jaar in early 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Macoombs.