As the Yemeni government escalates its war against protestors seeking the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Islamist groups in the southern part of the country are exploiting the power vacuum caused by the chaos to gain local and regional influence while they establish themselves in cities and towns abandoned by police and the army.
Meanwhile, the embattled president has once again reneged on a promise to resign, claiming that al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists would take over the country if he left. It is a sign of how bad things are for Saleh that no one believes him. In fact, the president stands accused of ordering the abandonment of a key provincial capital to the militants in an effort to justify the continuation of his rule.
About 400 Islamic extremists have moved into the southern coastal city of Zinjibar in the lawless province of Abyan with the stated purpose of establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state in Yemen. There are conflicting reports about which group has seized this provincial capital and third largest city in the country, with some residents reporting that it is Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has moved in, while other press reports identify a local fundamentalist tribal group known as Ansar al-Sharia. But Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen tweeted on Sunday that AQAP has begun calling itself by that name recently.
The government fought back, bombing buildings and compounds where the extremists were holed up and sending ground forces in to try and wrest control of the city from the militants. Helicopter gunships may have destroyed up to 200 homes with at least 12 people killed during the counterattack. Thousands have fled the fighting and the prospect of being governed by extremists.
Zinjibar is the second major city in Abyan province to fall into the hands of extremists. The city of Jaar was captured by al-Qaeda in March where the terrorists issued a declaration naming the city an “Islamic emirate.” Professor Saeed Al-Jamhi, a professor at the University of Sanaa, head of al-Jamhi Center for Studies and Research, and an expert on AQAP, believes that al-Qaeda has already “absorbed the blow” to it delivered by the Arab uprisings, and is beginning to turn the revolts to its advantage – especially in Yemen.
Al-Jamhi points out that that AQAP believes that Abyan province will be a central hub due to “ideological considerations.” Apparently, it is part of Salafi belief that Yemen “is a desert of salvation stretching north towards the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, and from it to the world to form the so-called Islamic caliphate.” In this context, AQAP believes itself well-positioned to exploit the lack of control by the central government and can carve out an independent entity that, for all practical purposes, does not answer to any Yemeni government authority.
The violence in Yemen has increased in recent days and the government is beginning to crumble. An entire brigade of the powerful Republican guard has defected en masse to the opposition and nine generals have signed a statement that urged government forces to stand with the “peaceful, popular revolution.” Abdullah Ali Eliwa, A former defense minister of Saleh’s, has accused the president of ordering the army “to hand over Zinjibar” to the extremists. Witnesses in Zinjibar claim the small military force fled on Friday when the extremists entered the city but it is unclear if they were ordered out, or retreated on their own.
The president has used the AQAP threat in the past to crackdown on dissidents and maintain his dictatorship. For the Yemeni opposition, it has become a question of credibility. Saleh has “cried wolf” so often that even a genuine threat from extremists on one of the nation’s largest cities is met with skepticism and continued demands that he relinquish control of the country immediately. Saleh has already promised three times that he would resign, agreeing to terms negotiated by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Three times, he has reneged on the agreement, citing the chaos that would descend on Yemen if he were to depart.
Saleh has been withdrawing army units from the south for several months trying to bolster security in the capital and other northern cities. This has given AQAP an advantage that it may be a long time relinquishing. The terrorists have allied themselves with more secular-oriented separatists in the south who have been carrying on a low-level insurrection ever since North and South Yemen were united in 1990. With separatist activity increasing, the government – whoever leads it in the near future – will have its hands full trying to extinguish wildfires set by both al-Qaeda and newly empowered insurgents in Ayban province. It may take many months – perhaps years – for the government build up the strength necessary to confront its security problems.
But while the terrorists are making gains, President Saleh has apparently decided to increase the pressure on the opposition. On Sunday, at least 20 protestors were killed in a brutal attack by government forces on a tent city in the main square in Taiz where thousands were camped out calling for President Saleh’s ouster. Tanks moved in along with riot police and set fire to tents trapping some protestors inside while snipers gunned down civilians from a hotel rooftop across the street from the square. The death toll may rise significantly due to many wounded civilians who are still lying in the street and are unable to receive medical assistance. Government forces looted a nearby hospital, smashing computers and arresting injured protestors.
There are also indications that a truce with the powerful Hashid Federation may be falling apart. Following a week of fierce clashes between the Hashids and the government, a cease fire was arranged on Friday. The Hashid Federation is led by Saleh’s most powerful rival, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, who owns the country’s largest cell phone network. Reports that filtered out of Sanaa on Sunday evening suggested that the government had interrupted that phone service following reports of mortar rounds and machine gun fire in the Hashid stronghold of Hasaba.
There are now three of the largest tribes in Yemen fighting the government. It is, for all practical purposes, a civil war. As the Wall Street Journal points out, “When tribal blood is spilled, the tribal code of honor prioritizes revenge.” How can Saleh, or any possible successor, put this patchwork quilt of clashing tribal and clan interests back together in the near future?
No doubt AQAP is wondering the same thing.