JAAR, Yemen - "Al Qaeda, they don't have a country," my Yemeni security guard said as we passed through the thirteenth and final military checkpoint along a rugged, potholed road leading to the town of Jaar, al Qaeda's newest stronghold in southern Yemen. "When they see places quiet from the government -- a lazy government -- they go."
Under the moniker Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, al Qaeda handily seized Jaar in March 2011. They quickly renamed the peaceful hamlet Waqar -- it means "respect" or "majesty," according to one of its new inhabitants -- and instituted a strict Islamic government.
The conquest of the town -- which its new rulers insisted on calling Waqar throughout my visit -- was just the latest conquest in a series of gains for Ansar al-Sharia. The group has exploited the turmoil in Yemen over the past year to seize control of much of the southern Yemen's Abyan province.
"It's like what happened with the Taliban in Afghanistan," the guard said.
Indeed, the fate of south Yemen has only reaffirmed Washington's long-held suspicion that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- born of a merger in 2009 between Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda -- was looking to establish a new center of gravity there. In his first congressional testimony as CIA director, David Petraeus said AQAP had "emerged as the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad." His statement came on the heels of leaked reports that a CIA drone program was preparing new kill lists targeting al Qaeda fighters in south Yemen.
Yemen's fragile new government is now caught between a resurgent al Qaeda and American counterterror operations. On the eve of my journey to Jaar, Yemen's newly minted president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, launched a bold military offensive aimed at retaking the town of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, and commencing the hellish trudge toward establishing government control over the seemingly ungovernable region. The attack, however, was a fiasco: Some 185 Yemeni soldiers were killed in the fighting and 73 were captured -- becoming bargaining chips for the release of imprisoned al Qaeda comrades.
According to my al Qaeda hosts, I was the first non-Yemeni journalist to enter their province. I found them to be as welcoming as many other Yemenis I had met in the country. Was it because I was a reporter and they sought to project a positive image? Or did they genuinely believe that Americans could coexist with jihadists?
Above: A framed photo of Osama bin Laden hangs below a sign advertising Jaar's gas station. Rows of five-gallon metal gas cans sit unattended in front of the gas clerk's chair. This was proof of Jaar's safety, according to one Ansar al-Sharia member. "We don't even need to guard the gasoline. It's safe from thieves," he said.