Khaled Abdullah / Retuers Firefighters extinguish a fire at a food storage warehouse hit by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa October 25, 2015.

How al Qaeda Rules in Yemen

Letter from Mukalla

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.

In Mukalla, the Central Bank of Yemen stands vacant and stained in soot after al Qaeda stormed it and seized millions of dollars in April.

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

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