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.
Camel train According to the Yemeni government, nearly 100,000 people have fled their homes in Abyan since fighting between al Qaeda and government forces broke out in May. As we neared Jaar, vans loaded with displaced Abyan residents -- most of them clutching armfuls of possessions -- passed us, driving in the opposite direction. Herds of camel flanked the retreating vans.
Keeping the faith The unmistakable black-and-white flag of al Qaeda juts from a rusted iron barrel at the entrance to Jaar. The flag bears the Arabic inscription of the iconic Islamic statement of belief, the shahada: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger" atop a full moon. The symbol is ubiquitous throughout Jaar.
The new sheriff Jihadi militants -- some men, some boys, all packing Kalashnikovs, hand grenades or daggers -- patrol Jaar's dusty roads on motorcycles given to them by Ansar al-Sharia.
Spoils of war Members of Ansar al-Sharia proudly raise the al Qaeda flag on a Yemeni military truck they pillaged in the previous day's fighting outside Zinjibar, where a reported 185 Yemeni soldiers were killed and 73 kidnapped. The men claimed they had also taken two larger trucks full of weapons. AQAP said in a statement that a tank and two ambulances had also been seized, along with rocket launchers, mortar cannons, and anti-aircraft guns.
Feasting with al Qaeda After several tense and uncertain minutes upon my arrival to Jaar, while soldiers were verifying the purpose of my visit, an elder Ansar al-Sharia member looked directly at me and said, "no problem, no problem." He and his comrades then made clear that I was their guest for the day, and insisted that we feast together. Sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor cordoned off from the rest of the building, we palmed handfuls of rice and grilled meat into our mouths, followed by freshly cut apples, oranges, and bananas.
Discussion turned to the never-ending war between al Qaeda and the U.S. government. "Until America stops forcing democracy on us, we will continue to fight," one Ansar al-Sharia member said. "We don't want democracy. We want to be left alone."
Sharia prison Red lines, and the consequences of crossing them, are clear cut in the Islamic Emirate of Waqar. "If you steal food from the market because you are hungry, we will not cut the hand. But of course we look at context," an Ansar al-Sharia member said. "For example, if you steal during prayer time, or if you steal more than something like $65, then we cut."
Vice Ansar al-Sharia soldiers suggested I ask a pair of men from Jaar smoking cigarettes and chewing a local narcotic, qat, whether the new authorities were tolerant of their vices. The men said they could chew and smoke when they wanted. "We believe that cigarettes and qat are sinful," one of the soldiers said. "They are bad for society, but they are not illegal. We try to persuade people to give up their sins, but we don't force them."
Indeed, the soldiers added, Ansar al-Sharia moved the qat market to the edge of the city when they seized Jaar -- but did not abolish it entirely. Some in Yemen say the group is promoting tolerance merely to attract members, and will crack down on lesser offenses in the future.
One jihadist's journey An African-born member of Ansar al-Sharia told me that he left his family to start a new life in Yemen after listening to an inspiring speech by Anwar al-Awlaki, the late U.S.-born AQAP senior leader. Awlaki was killed by a volley of Hellfire missiles fired from a CIA drone in September 2011.
Missiles don't discriminate A young boy from Jaar stands in front of rubble from a building Ansar al-Sharia said was destroyed by a Saudi missile (a claim I could not verify). No one was in the building at the time of its destruction, he said, but some were injured. While he said he could hear "the buzz of the drones in the sky," no drone attacks had occurred in Jaar. "Only missiles," he added.
Mixed reviews A multinational, multiethnic, multigenerational mass of Waqaris surround our van late in the day near the central market. Many were curious who we were, why we had come, and how we had gained access. Some appeared disgusted at the sight of an American in their city, while others, in a display of traditional Yemeni hospitality, insisted we stay the night. But as Ansar al-Sharia stipulated, we left just before sundown.
Targeted Two Yemeni men walk past a bombed-out mosque they say had been targeted by foreign missiles in last year's air strikes in the battle for Zinjibar. Asked how they knew where the missiles came from, an Ansar al-Sharia member said they can tell by the size of the explosion: "Yemeni missiles are weak. Saudi missiles are medium. American missiles are very powerful."