Al Qaeda’s core organizational leadership may be at its weakest point in over a decade but the group’s regional franchises are certainly making up for their losses.
Nowhere in the world is this more obvious than in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, with a government fractured internally and system of political parties fighting among itself. Add acute child undernourishment, widespread illiteracy, inaccessible health-care services and a country awash in weapons to the picture, and it is a wonder why terrorists did not try to expand their territorial reach in Yemen sooner.
Yemen was in horrible shape to begin with, even before millions of Yemeni demonstrators took to the streets in strong opposition to their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But with eleven months of turmoil pitting security forces against demonstrators and armed tribes, in multiple cities, Al Qaeda’s wing in this Arabian Peninsula state has been given a gift from the ruling regime.
With Yemen’s elite counterterrorism units diverted to the capital and its army picked apart, AQAP is on the ascendancy, grabbing territory in the south and attempting to do what they miserably failed to do in Iraq years earlier — establish an Islamic emirate in an Arab state.
Abyan Province along Yemen’s southern coast has been, and continues to be, the hotbed of AQAP’s governing project. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni outfit, which used to call itself Ansar al-Sharia, has been in firm control of two large Yemeni towns in the province, including the provincial capital of Zinjibar since May of last year.
Eight months later, AQAP militants remain in the city, administering their code of justice and attempting to exert their will on the local population, despite multiple offensives from what is left of Yemen’s armed forces. The city of 100,000 now resembles a deserted town, with buildings completely abandoned, streets marked with potholes and what were homes that have transformed into military garrisons Residents are only just returning, after being refused entry by the militants twice before.
Two towns held by Al Qaeda are disturbing enough. But evidently, the militants are only beginning their trek for more land and resources.
Earlier this week, fighters connected to AQAP entered the interior Yemeni town of Rada’a without resistance from the police forces. Residents in the area reported that some policemen voluntarily gave their weapons to Al Qaeda before fleeing town. AQAP is now essentially the policemen, service provider and mayor of the city, all rolled into one. In case anyone doubted its strength, the militants hoisted their black flag above the town’s mosque in a show of defiance to the central government, demonstrating, in the meantime, that the people of Rada’a are now beholden to Al Qaeda rule.
Yemen’s interim unity government may not view Al Qaeda or terrorism in general as its top priority. Given the country’s horror story, from Saleh prolonging the transition process to a desperate cash flow problem, perhaps Yemen’s government should not be. But Al Qaeda is not waiting around for Yemen’s leaders to pounce before making their move. The Yemenis may not be worrying about it but you can bet that the United States intelligence community is.