When the Yemeni military took the southern cities of Zinjibar and Jaar in its lightning campaign in June, Ansar al-Sharia beat a hasty retreat to the port city of Shaqra. When the army moved on Shaqra, the organization was able to regroup with all its heavy weaponry in the remote stronghold area of Mehfid, where it remains today -- and which will likely be the staging ground for even larger battles, Ghazwan noted.
Ghazwan said that a special unit cobbled together from local tribesman and military personnel had been formed with the purpose of defending an area called the Khubr Triangle, which lies between Shaqra and Mehfid. The unit was supposed to intercept Ansar al-Sharia on the al Qaeda offshoot's way to Mehfid. Yet, the unit's leader told Ghazwan that when the battle came, Military Operations ordered him not to intercept al Qaeda.
"Orders came at the time of the battle saying, 'This brigade should not move to Khubr.' And they stayed where they were for two days. And Ansar al-Sharia was able to move all of its heavy equipment to Mehfid," Ghazwan said.
"When you call mid-ranking military officials and speak to them on this issue," Ghazwan pointed out, "they tell you, 'We don't know who's behind this. Orders came from Military Operations not to move.' This indicates that al Qaeda has its hands in the highest ranks of military leadership who make the decisions."
Asked whether this oversight could have been because the officer who gave the orders had made a tactical error or was unaware of Ansar al-Sharia's movements, Ghazwan scoffed: "If that were true, then that too would be a huge problem, because commanders are supposed to be military experts, not ignorant of the enemy's movements." Solemnly, he added, "They [military leaders] gave life to al Qaeda once more. It had been on the verge of death."
As for why elements inside the Yemeni government would cooperate with or encourage al Qaeda's activities, the benefit is clear. The United States backed Saleh's regime with millions of dollars of assistance for his counterterrorism operations -- and it now backs the Hadi government in the hope that it can eradicate the terrorist threat and stabilize Yemen. But elements in the government have an incentive to keep the pot boiling: The greater al Qaeda's profile in Yemen, the more U.S. dollars flow to Yemeni government coffers. And with the country's history of rampant corruption, it should shock no one if much of that foreign assistance finds its way into politicians' pockets.
To the Interior Ministry officer, this couldn't be clearer. "The authorities get support from outside powers, like the U.S. They catch them [al Qaeda operatives] and then let them go to do other operations in order to extort support from other countries," he said matter-of-factly.
Ghazwan had a more nuanced view. "The issue is that those who collude with al Qaeda are not low- or mid-level officers. Those officers don't cooperate with al Qaeda," he said. "It's the highest-level leaders, who don't actually believe in the preachings of Ansar al-Sharia, but who manipulate them to remain in the government or bring a particular party to power."