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Around midnight on April 2, bombs began falling on the coastal city of Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s largest province, Hadramawt. A female Yemeni journalist who asked not to be identified told me that when she heard the explosions, she phoned the city’s top security officials and army commanders to ask what had happened but that they had “no clue.”
Soon after, it became clear that the city was under siege by al Qaeda. Around 200 of the militants were from Mukalla and another 200 drove in from other parts of Yemen in their pickup trucks.
According to the journalist and Abu Younis, the media liaison for al Qaeda, the group surrounded the buildings of the national security, police stations, Republican Palace, and army camps. They blew up the cars of soldiers sent by central Yemeni security forces and prevented armored vehicles from entering the city.
After three days of fighting around the army barracks, the city’s commanders surrendered in return for the ability to leave unharmed.
Once in control, the militants freed some 300 prisoners, including three from al Qaeda; one of them was Khaled Batarfi, a top leader. They then headed over to the city’s main bank, stealing more than 24 billion rials ($111 million). Nine billion rials were later destroyed by a U.S. drone strike. After the bank heist, Al Qaeda seized six of the city’s main army and security barracks—two of which are full of large weapons.
Looting swept the city. It was not clear who the assailants were, but witnesses said that al Qaeda militants watched the looting and declined to interfere. Younis said that undercover police agents tried to create chaos.
“Every official—the governor and the security and military commanders—fled the city,” the Yemeni journalist said. “They vanished and we were left all alone, face to face with al Qaeda.”
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which Washington has considered al Qaeda’s most dangerous franchise since it attempted several attacks on the United States, is more or less using the city to support its other battlefields in Yemen, sending weapons, including massive ones shipped via container, to those combating the Houthis. In September 2014, the Houthis descended from their northern enclave, took over Sanaa, the capital, and waged a campaign to expand their territorial gains to southern Yemen, forcing the internationally backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to flee the country.
AQAP has also set up training camps inside Mukalla under the banner of forming a Sunni army, but it is to apparently raise up a new crop of fighters and operatives, which became particularly important after the city turned into a honey trap for its top leaders.
Soon after the group swept the city, at least six U.S. drone strikes liquidated the group’s top cadres: its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi; a veteran military commander, Nasr al-Ansi; the influential religious scholar Ibrahim al-Rubaish; a top field commander, Mamoun Hatem; its media liaison, Muhannad Ghallab; and even a famous singer, Abu Hager al-Hadrami, who had produced a set of religious songs to bolster the group’s spirit.
Younis told me that AQAP is compensating for its losses by bringing in new commanders from Afghanistan. He also said that the drone strikes are backfiring and turning into a recruitment tool. “Without the stupidities of the Americans and their drone strikes, our call wouldn’t have spread and people would not have known our cause,” he said. Yet he acknowledged that the strikes prompted the group to exercise vigilance, limiting their use of cell phones and social media.
The takeover of Mukalla also marked a shift in AQAP’s strategy. Unlike with previous conquests, including the 2011–2012 takeover of large swaths of land in the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, the group searched for a power-sharing scheme. It did not raise its black banners, and it made no official declaration of a takeover. It also swapped the name of al Qaeda with a nonreligious one: Sons of Hadramawt. More important, the group delegated the running of the city to a civilian body made up of more than 60 members. AQAP thus acts as the city’s armed force.
The civilian governing body is led by the tribal leader Omar bin al-Shakl, who was previously linked to the Islamist Islah party, and also by the ultraconservative Salafist Abdel-Hakim Mahfouz.
Younis says that AQAP has not interfered in the selection of the council members, whom he identified as the city’s elders. Mahfouz said that the council was only meant to fill a “deep vacuum,” but because of lack of funds, its abilities are limited. He said that AQAP gave the council only a billion rials ($4 million) but tacked on extra charges to fuel sales and imports as a way to secure a source of revenue.
This power-sharing scheme, it seems, is a way for AQAP to save itself from the trouble of ruling a city as big as Mukalla and to shift blame for any future failures while enjoying the ability to build up its network and resources. It has been facing growing competition and heavy pressures from rival Islamic State (or ISIS) affiliates that are building bases across Yemen and competing for resources, territories, and fighters. One ISIS offshoot recently claimed responsibility for the first suicide bombing targeting the country’s prime minister in Aden shortly after his return to Yemen. The affiliates have also carried out a series of deadly suicide bombings in mosques in Sanaa, which were condemned by AQAP.
By investing in the semi-sectarian nature of the conflict in Yemen, AQAP leaders calculated that they could gain a foothold in Mukalla under the banner of protecting a Sunni city against the Shiite Houthis. Mukalla’s strong southern secessionist leanings mean that AQAP can exploit the southerner’s natural animosity toward the northern government, including security forces and army units. Many in Hadramawt, which is home to a large merchant class with a strong connection to Saudi Arabia, aspire to return to an independent South Yemen as it was before the 1990 unification.
Before he was killed in an April 22 drone strike, Ghallab told me, “We are all fighting Houthis because this is the top priority. Whatever bad blood is between us [AQAP] and the resistance factions, we will sort it out later.”
Now, only six months after AQAP swept Mukalla, tension has been building up between it and the civilian council, as well as with the general public. The people of Mukalla are fed up with the paralysis of state institutions and the deep uncertainty that pervades the city, and many perceive the civilian council as only a cover for AQAP.
“Al Qaeda came to secure the city, then leave … but the opposite happened,” a port worker told me. “They are not securing the city, they are corrupting it.” He was standing next to a building torched by the U.S. drone strike that killed al-Hadrami, the group’s singer.
On October 12, hundreds of residents marched in the streets raising anti–al Qaeda banners and demanding that it leave, chanting, “No al Qaeda after today. Get out.” At the end of the day, two reporters were arrested and the rest of the protestors spent a fearful night worrying that they too might be detained. AQAP accused one of the journalists of collaborating with Yemen’s security apparatus.
AQAP initially refrained from the full implementation of sharia law, and in an April statement shared by Ghallab, the group denied rumors that it was planning to ban musical parties or men from wearing shorts.
But the city’s main courthouse is now the headquarters of religious police, or Hisba, that “promote virtue and prevention of vice.” And AQAP militants roam streets to enforce sharia. They have blackened out the faces of women on billboards advertising detergents and mobile service and installed placards with prayer advice on the city’s bridges.
Street partying, by males, is banned, yet women are allowed to freely gather and dance at wedding parties with all-female bands. Qat, a water-intensive plant that is drying up Yemen, is now illegal—which many Yemenis, particularly women, have hailed as a positive step—but it is still being sold on the black market. Sex segregation has been more tightly enforced, and men and women who are not related to each other can no longer walk the streets together, even though the city was already conservative before AQAP and a great majority of women were covered in public from head to toe.
Most significantly, militants use dynamite to blow up ancient Sufi shrines, demolishing them one by one in a show of force, deeply angering residents and even sparking clashes. Younis justified the destruction by saying, “We didn’t harm the dead. We follow the prophet’s teachings.” Salafis deem Sufism as “heretical.”
After one bombing a couple of weeks ago caused a nearby house to crack, Baterfi tried to assuage the public by telling worshippers at a Friday sermon that AQAP would compensate families affected by the destruction of the shrines. A video posted by the group showed one of the city’s elders announcing that compensations were being paid, but it was not immediately possible to verify the official account.
AQAP has also implemented hudud, which involves executions and public flogging of “sinners.” Several people have been executed for witchcraft. In one of the most brutal incidents, two Saudi nationals who were former AQAP members were shot dead and then crucified. They had been accused of spying and guiding U.S. drones to strike AQAP leaders. Their bodies were left dangling from two of the city’s bridges. Younis told me that the brutal execution was meant to “send a message to future spies” and that the two had confessed to planting chips that helped guide the U.S. drones to the location of the group’s commanders, but he provided no evidence.
The implementation of sharia has been a subject of debate within AQAP’s leadership in Yemen. In his last appearance before his death by drone strike in April, the former leader al-Wahishi struck a moderate tone, arguing that at a time of war it is permissible to limit the practice of hudud, along with other extreme practices such as forcing women to cover up the eye openings in their niqabs. He said it was “ignorant with religion.”
But observers within Mukalla believe that the U.S. drones liquidated the least hard-line leaders within the group and gave way to the more aggressive ones like the current AQAP chief Qassim al-Raymi and Jalal Belaid, who was once responsible for the beheadings of 16 Yemeni soldiers in 2014 who were said to be Houthis.
Fahmi al-Haj, a shop owner at the busy Mukalla market, said that when AQAP first captured the city, “Ninety percent of the people had no problem with them, but now they discovered they are so bad.” He added, “They are aggressive and ready to kill on the spot.”
A POLITICAL GAMBLE
The Saudi-led coalition, which kicked off its air campaign against the Houthis on March 26, has distanced itself from fighting AQAP. Its spokesman, Ahmed Assiri, told me over the phone that the coalition’s mission is to get rid of Houthis and to build a strong Yemeni army that is capable of driving out AQAP.
Despite his remarks, many within Mukalla fear that AQAP will drag the city into an armed conflict sooner or later between AQAP and the Saudi-led coalition. The port worker I spoke with described the city as a “domino.” The old white stone houses are lined up next to each other under the foot of the mountain, separated by narrow streets and ancient shrines. One strike could turn the whole city into rubble, he said.
Neither AQAP nor the city politicians and elders want the Saudis to strike the city. But the two sides are at odds as to how to prevent such a scenario, as the group insists that it will not withdraw from the city.
The civilian council angered AQAP when it sent a delegation to Riyadh in May to meet with Hadi’s government. Mahfouz said the meeting was fruitful since Hadi voiced support for the council. Mahfouz added that the only way to avoid conflict with the Saudi-led coalition is through “dialogue,” not between the council and AQAP but “between the Yemeni government and AQAP.” But Younis said that AQAP sees Hadi’s government as illegitimate.
On the surface, AQAP is no longer in charge of Mukalla after it handed over the state institutions to the civilian council, but on the ground, they are the de facto rulers.
“Before we entered, we had a specific scenario,” Younis said. “We came for one goal, which was to protect the region from Houthis and implement the rule of God. We are gradually disappearing while handing power to the civilian council.”
But half a year later, AQAP has rejected all requests to leave. “We will not leave,” Younis said. “Whatever it takes, we will not leave our land.” He also said that AQAP’s real war is with the United States, which has sent drones to monitor Mukalla.
“There are four drones in the sky every day,” Younis said, pointing his finger upward. He said that while the group grew from a few hundred to tens of thousands, AQAP knows that it can’t set up an “Islamic emirate” when drones are flying overhead day and night. But it isn’t the group’s fault that they have been so sidetracked in battling Houthis or the Yemeni army in the past, Younis explained. The battles in Yemen, he said, are only “forced upon the group because they are the apostates who are preventing us from fighting the Americans.”