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.
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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."