A Hollow Victory

Yemen's new president claims to have driven al Qaeda from its strongholds. But Yemenis fear the militants will be back.

ADEN, Yemen – "It's over: Al Qaeda's leaving Zinjibar," the secessionist activist who had moonlighted as my driver in this southern Yemeni city announced.

My initial response, if I remember correctly, was a skeptical laugh. Since the militant group Ansar al-Sharia seized swaths of Yemen's Abyan province last year, government officials had often made overly confident claims about the progress of the battle to oust the al Qaeda-linked fighters. But as I'd personally confirm the next day, the militants' retreat was real. After more than a year, Yemeni forces had -- at least temporarily -- finally managed to regain control of the provincial capital. Ansar al-Sharia began seizing towns in Abyan last spring, seemingly taking advantage of a growing power vacuum as the Yemeni government became consumed with a power struggle set off by nationwide anti-government protests targeting then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

For photos of al Qaeda in Yemen, click here.

At the time, many in Yemen characterized the group's rapid gains as the result of an intentional retreat by government forces, claiming that Saleh had deliberately abandoned the province -- long a hotbed of secessionist sentiment and Islamic militancy -- in a bid to divert attention from the demonstrations calling for his ouster.

And indeed, until the inauguration of Saleh's successor, longtime Vice President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the campaign to take back Abyan seemed sidelined by the tense standoff between pro- and anti-Saleh factions of the Yemeni military. But shortly after taking office, Hadi initiated a renewed offensive to expel the militants, who despite fighting under a different banner, are formally led by Nasser al-Wihayshi, leader of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Backed by local fighters and U.S. intelligence and air support, the Yemeni armed forces gradually began to take back territory in the weeks before the so-called liberation of Zinjibar. Even as I set off to Abyan the morning after government forces announced their victory, it was hard to shake my general sense of disbelief. Few journalists had ventured to Jaar and Zinjibar over the past year, and those who made it into Ansar al-Sharia-controlled areas brought back tales of the militants' seemingly unquestioned control.

As the desert gave way to the rural suburbs of Zinjibar, once a town of approximately 20,000, the nearly apocalyptic level of destruction jolted me into reality. On the front lines of what some military officials described as a yearlong war of attrition between militants and Yemeni forces, nearly every building had been totaled. Graffiti blaming the destruction on the Yemeni government's alliance with "American infidels" attested to the propaganda war, looming ominously over seemingly complacent farmers as they worked the fields surrounding the wreckage of their homes.

As we reached Zinjibar, checkpoints manned by the Yemeni military and its local tribal allies seemed to gesture at the government's intent to maintain its hold, though the handful of civilians milling around the city's bombed-out streets -- a minuscule percentage of the tens of thousands forced to flee the fighting -- largely seemed to be taking stock of their losses, even if many expressed a somewhat discordant sense of optimism.

Even the most upbeat civilians seemed almost taken aback by the devastation. It might have prevented militants from consolidating their hold on the city, but ultimately, the offensive had destroyed Zinjibar in the process of "saving" it. "It's great that they're gone," said Said Allawi, a Zinjibar resident, gesturing at the wreckage surrounding us. "But we're still left with the destruction they've left behind."

Some 10 miles north of Zinjibar in Jaar, another "liberated" town, Ansar al-Sharia had carved out a base, winning support -- or at the very least, compliance -- from the town's long-neglected inhabitants by providing security and basic services. But in their former bastion, once rechristened the "Islamic Emirate of Waqar," the militants were seemingly absent -- even if traces of their stay were omnipresent.

Under the nearly inescapable shadow of al Qaeda graffiti, my military escort undertook a paradoxical quest to find cold water, demonstrating the government's confidence in its control of the city while seeming strikingly disconnected from the already building angst of the sweltering town's inhabitants. Suffering from a seemingly indefinite power blackout, the responses of civilians ranged from perplexed to perturbed, signaling an apparent acceptance of the end of Ansar al-Sharia's rule paired with a deep skepticism that things would improve, in some cases, openly scoffing at my escort's assurances of the imminent return of government services.

Still, standing on the top of Mount Khanfar, a former militant bastion and, according to soldiers I spoke with, a frequent target of U.S. drone strikes, lording over the city, it was hard to take issue with the scores of joyous soldiers mobbing government dignitaries as they toured the area. But as top military brass admitted, the battle was far from over.

"The battle continues in Shaqra; the battle continues in Shabwa," Yemeni Defense Minister Mohamed Nasser Ali told me as we spoke. The government would announce the fall of the coastal town of Shaqra, the militant's last remaining bastion in Abyan, a few days later. But it was east, to the neighboring province of Shabwa, where many expected the militants to head, taking refuge in the same rugged mountains that are believed to host the bulk of AQAP leadership.

"It's ultimately about sending a message," one Yemeni analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity told me shortly after the battle in Abyan began to heat up earlier this spring, painting the offensive as a result of Hadi's desire to show a decisive break with the past. "And regardless of the long-term effects of the battle in the province, Hadi will manage to send it, even if the message will be written in Yemeni blood rather than ink."

After only a few months, many Yemenis optimistically noted, Hadi had managed to achieve the seemingly impossible, confounding the expectations of those who had dismissed him as an empty suit. But even as some government officials trumpeted al Qaeda's defeat in Abyan, there was little doubt that the group would live to fight another day.

Although the militants -- escaping armed and largely unscathed -- had abandoned the flat, difficult-to-defend terrain of southern Abyan, few doubted their ability to regroup at more secluded hideaways elsewhere. And even with the militants temporarily out of the picture, a return to calm in Abyan seems distant.

Although government officials have hailed the role of the so-called "Popular Committees," groups of armed tribesmen who fought against Ansar al-Sharia on the side of the military, many of the committees' fighters aim openly for the restoration of southern Yemen's independence, while others have been dismissed by some in the governorate as little more than unprincipled mercenaries.

For civilians, any semblance of a return to normalcy seems almost unimaginable. Even before last spring, residents of Abyan were quick to complain of neglect from the central government, and in the wake of the militant's pullout, basic services remain all but absent in much of the province. From what I saw, the destruction of Abyan's economic and social fabric seems near total, and estimates of the financial toll of the past year cross into seven figures.

As cautious optimism fades and if lingering resentments continue to harden, it's not hard to see violence erupting in Abyan yet again -- regardless of al Qaeda's intentions. Pushing the militants out was one thing. Repairing the damage of the past year is quite another.

"Even if we've achieved victory in this battle with weapons," an opposition politician told me upon my return to Sanaa, "we can only win the war through economic progress and real efforts towards development."



Sympathy for the Devil

Nostalgia for an ousted tyrant is on the rise in Ivory Coast.

For more photos of post-Gbagbo Ivory Coast, click here. 

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Dressed in a white undershirt, long dark trousers, and plastic flip-flops, Florent Tahé gave an angry frown as he took a break from his work. He had spent the better part of the morning unloading 140-pound bags of cocoa beans from the back of a cargo truck in San Pedro, in southwestern Ivory Coast. It was dirty, backbreaking work, and it paid less than $5 a day for a 10-hour shift. But it was a job, and for young men in West Africa, those are in short supply.

Ivory Coast, mercifully, is no longer making regular, front-page news. More than a year has passed since President Laurent Gbagbo was forced from power after refusing to accept election results that didn't go his way. More than 3,000 people were killed and a million or more displaced in the four months of fighting that led to Gbagbo's ouster in April 2011. But the conflict ceased, for the most part, with his departure, and the country seems to be on the mend. The new president, Alassane Ouattara, has the backing of the international community, including a vote of confidence from the United States -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, on a visit to Abidjan in January, that Ivory Coast is now "open for business."

Tahé, nonetheless, was not happy. Gbagbo is now in The Hague in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with four counts of crimes against humanity, and Tahé and many of his fellow co-workers were furious about it. The next phase of Gbagbo's trial was due to begin June 18 but has now been postponed to Aug. 13 to give his defense team more time to prepare. Gbagbo will be the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC, which was established on July 1, 2002, and is the world's first permanent, treaty-based court. (The cases of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, were tried by international courts that were set up in conjunction with the United Nations for people accused of war crimes specifically in those countries.)

"They should leave Gbagbo in peace," Tahé said, sitting on a pile of cocoa sacks and surrounded by a dozen other men who shouted in agreement. "Alassane Ouattara started the war. Because of him our country is rotting away. He is the one that is a criminal."

Gbagbo's arrest last November was hailed by Ouattara's camp and praised by the West as an important sign that sustainable peace had returned to Ivory Coast and that the perpetrators of war crimes in the country would be brought to justice. The former leader's supporters, meanwhile, have accused Ouattara of victor's justice, pointing out that though the president has said he will pursue all war criminals, regardless of affiliation, thus far the only people detained have come from Gbagbo's side.

The ICC's chief prosecutor, as stated in an ICC news release, has accused Gbagbo of directing "murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution and other inhuman acts, allegedly committed in the context of post-electoral violence" between mid-December 2010 and mid-April 2011. It was during these months, following his loss at the polls, that his forces unleashed a reign of terror against opponents, particularly in Abidjan and western Ivory Coast, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. Human Rights Watch reported that troops and militias close to Gbagbo had murdered pro-Ouattara politicians in Abidjan, gang-raped women known to have worn pro-Ouattara T-shirts, and seized other Ouattara supporters "and then beat them to death with bricks, executed them by gunshot at point-blank range, or burned them alive."

Despite the accusations, Gbagbo remains a very popular figure in Ivory Coast (he won 45 percent of the vote in the runoff election against Ouattara, after all), and resentment regarding his arrest is widespread.

"It's not right that Gbagbo is in The Hague," said Barthelemy Gnepa, one of Tahé's co-workers at the cocoa-processing plant in San Pedro. "[Ouattara supporters] cut my grandfather's throat, right in front of me. And stuff like that is still going on. There will be no reconciliation unless Gbagbo is released and sent home. We'll never have peace."

Ivory Coast was once seen as one of the most stable and dynamic countries in West Africa. For it to regain that position, Ouattara will have to bring Gbagbo supporters back into the fold. That won't be easy. The divisions between the two camps are bitter and often cemented by bloodshed. The job will be made all the more challenging by Gbagbo's trial, each step of which will be major news in Ivory Coast as it plays out over the next few years.

Making Ouattara's efforts to reconcile with Gbagbo supporters even more difficult is that his rise to the presidency would not have been possible without the rebellion that formed in the wake of a failed coup attempt against Gbagbo in September 2002. Thwarted in their attack and pushed out of Abidjan, the rebels quickly seized control of the northern half of the country and sent Ivory Coast spiraling into its first civil war. It was a war born of years of rising tensions between native Ivorians in the south and the millions of foreign farmers who tend the country's vast cocoa plantations in the south and southwest. Many of the farmers were born in Ivory Coast and had lived their whole lives there, but as the descendants of immigrants who had come from neighboring countries decades ago, they were not eligible for citizenship.

By the 1970s, the immigrant farmers had helped build Ivory Coast into the world's largest cocoa exporter, creating a vibrant economy touted as the "Miracle of Africa." Many farmers had become wealthy along the way, but when the country's economy bottomed out in the 1980s, that wealth made them objects of envy. Immigrants increasingly became the targets of discrimination. Native Ivorians from the north were targeted as well, victimized because northern ethnic groups are often indistinguishable from those in neighboring countries -- the countries most of the immigrant farmers call home. The term Ivoirité (literally, "Ivoryness," a measure of purity of citizenship) worked its way into official government discourse, and by the late 1990s, a state-sponsored campaign of hate was under way.

Ivoirité was not Gbagbo's creation, but he embraced the idea soon after coming to the presidency in 2000, encouraging Ivorians from his native southwest to reclaim the land they had ceded to foreigners over the years. The farmers, many of whom had been in the southwest for generations, were not inclined to leave or give up their land. When soldiers from northern Ivory Coast launched the war in 2002, northern Ivorians and immigrants all over the country were quick to support the cause. Ouattara, who for years had battled rumors (fueled by Gbagbo and others) that he, too, was a foreigner, denied being behind the rebellion, but the rebels and their supporters made it clear that they wanted him to be president.

Gbagbo supporters like Tahé are quick to forget the discrimination, confiscated identity papers, threats, and physical attacks that northern Ivorians and immigrants suffered in the years leading up to the outbreak of war. "We lived very well. We had no problem with our brothers who were from elsewhere," Tahé told me. "The trouble started when Ouattara sent in his rebels. Then all the foreigners from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea suddenly supported them. All these foreigners who had nothing before they came here -- now they all had weapons hidden everywhere. And they started killing us."

These are not the rantings of a fringe extremist. People like Tahé make up a substantial minority of the Ivorian population. Over the course of two recent weeks in western Ivory Coast, I met dozens of people who were in lockstep with his views. Many were from Niambli, a village of more than a thousand people that lies 200 miles north of San Pedro near the town of Duékoué, in the west. The Duékoué area has seen more bloodshed than any other part of the country over the last 10 years, and during the post-election violence it was hit hard by troops loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara alike.

A paved road bisects Niambli and separates the indigenous and immigrant communities. Today, much of the village lies in ruins. By late March 2011, when it had become clear that Gbagbo's days were numbered, the regular army had largely abandoned the area. Gbagbo's youth militias took advantage of the security void that was left when the army departed, and they attacked the immigrant community in Niambli on the morning of March 23.

"Every house that you see here was on fire," Rasmani Badini told me. A 59-year-old farmer from Burkina Faso who has lived in Niambli since 1977, Badini sat on a wooden bench in the sun's full glare among a cluster of mud huts. "It seemed like there were thousands of them -- Gbagbo's militia, all dressed in black. They didn't have machetes or the kinds of guns you normally see with farmers in this area. They had Kalashnikovs. And by the end of the day the whole village was flattened. There wasn't a single house left."

Badini fled with a few hundred other immigrants into the bush, where they hid for a couple of weeks. By the time they returned home, the indigenous side of Niambli had been flattened as well. Pro-Ouattara troops had charged through town on their way to Abidjan, exacting revenge along the way. Olivier, a 21-year-old native Ivorian, fled the town with his pregnant sister when Ouattara's soldiers arrived. But they couldn't outrun them. "They stabbed her in the belly with a knife," he told me. "Killed her and the baby. I panicked and ran, and they were shooting at me. I got hit in the elbow." He lifted his arm and showed me the scar.

Olivier eventually took refuge at a Catholic mission in Duékoué, making him one of the lucky ones. Hundreds of other civilians in the area were ultimately stopped in Carrefour, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Duékoué, where international human rights groups and dozens of witnesses with whom I spoke say they were executed by troops loyal to Ouattara and dumped into mass graves.

No one from Ouattara's camp has been arrested for these and other alleged crimes, a fact that infuriates Gbagbo loyalists and makes it very difficult to see how the president can successfully secure peace and reconciliation for the country.

"There have been problems," Ouattara acknowledged to the Africa Report in May. "When it comes to the question of human rights, things are progressing.… Justice will be allowed to follow its course; there will not be any discrimination."

Still, many experts fear that not enough progress has been made. "You cannot have reconciliation if you have one-sided justice," a human rights officer with the United Nations, who asked not to be named, told me. "It just creates grounds for revenge and hatred. If the ICC doesn't arrest someone from the Ouattara side, the reconciliation process will not work."

Ouattara's job has been further complicated by the insecurity that still plagues the country's west. Numerous communities have fallen victim to attacks from shadowy armed gangs -- leftover war-makers suddenly without a productive role to play in a society trying to stitch itself back together. In March, I visited Zibablo-Yeblo, a small village north of Duékoué that had been torched by unknown assailants, killing two people and destroying all the village's food stocks. In early June, seven U.N. peacekeepers and eight civilians were killed when a village on Ivory Coast's western border with Liberia was attacked. (Human Rights Watch had published a report just before that attack, accusing the Liberian government of ignoring the well-armed Liberians and former Gbagbo militiamen camped among the thousands of Ivorian refugees still living in eastern Liberia.)

Ouattara is in the difficult position of needing to provide security to a region where a large portion of the population doesn't trust his motives and is highly suspicious of his security forces. "The pro-Gbagbo people don't recognize this army," said the U.N. human rights officer. "The ongoing clashes are a clear indication of a serious crisis. If things continue like this, there will be no peace."

It is a sentiment echoed by Florent Tahé at the cocoa plant in San Pedro. "Alassane Ouattara is not our president," Tahé told me as he and his fellow co-workers finished their break and got ready to go back to work. "The president is Laurent Gbagbo. He will always remain our president. It's not going well here at all now. They try to make it look like it's OK, but it's not. When we go outside, we have to worry that Ouattara's soldiers will beat us up. You see? What are we to do? We don't know."