Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized Zinjibar, the capital of the Abyan province, and the town of Jaar earlier today.
Zinjibar was under AQAP’s control from May 2011 until the summer of 2012, when the jihadists were expelled with the help of American airstrikes. However, AQAP has been working its way back into the area. In October, al Qaeda fighters reportedly captured government buildings in Zinjibar. And today’s offensive may have been intended to secure the jihadists’ footing in the port town and the surrounding area.
Fighters from Ansar al Sharia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s political front in Yemen, took control of Jaar after briefly skirmishing with pro-government tribal militias. Both militiamen and jihadists were killed during the fighting, Reuters reported.
There are conflicting reports concerning AQAP’s current presence in Jaar. Some accounts say the jihadists may have targeted key leaders before falling back to Zinjibar and elsewhere. Other reports say AQAP is currently in control of the town.
According to Al-Masdar Online, a Sanaa-based publication, AQAP blew “up the houses of two commanders of the popular committees, including the house of ‘Abd-al-Latif al-Sayyid.” The popular committees in Jaar include a mix of forces that are loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Al-Masdar identified the head of AQAP’s paramilitary army in Jaar and Zinjibar as Jalal Bal’idi, a well known al Qaeda commander in the Abyan province.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that an AQAP leader announced the group’s control over “the emirate of Jaar” from a loudspeaker in the “town’s Grand Mosque.” However, local witnesses cited by AFP said the AQAP fighters withdrew hours later.
Sources cited by CNN tell a different story. Abdulatif Said, who heads the popular committees in the area, “said their forces evacuated during the fierce clashes and that both Jaar and Zinjibar are now in the control of al Qaeda.”
The jihadists were met with little opposition from government forces as they stormed the two towns. The local militias apparently received little to no support from President Hadi, who is based in the nearby city of Aden.
Hadi and his rump military are focused on battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebel forces, which took control of much of Yemen, including the capital of Sana’a, and forced Hadi to flee the country earlier this year. A coalition of gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have allied with Hadi and are seeking to push back the Houthis’ gains.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken advantage of the chaos to take control of territory in southern Yemen. In August, fighters loyal to Hadi, under the cover of Saudi airstrikes, pushed Houthi rebels out of Zinjibar. But if AQAP retains control of the provincial capital after today’s events, then the expulsion of the Houthis simply cleared the way for al Qaeda.
AQAP controls Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout province. After AQAP seized the city in April 2015, the US killed several AQAP leaders in drone strikes in Mukalla, including Nasir al Wuhayshi, the group’s emir and al Qaeda’s overall general manager. Other rural areas in Hadramout, Abyan, and Shabwa are also in AQAP’s hands. The jihadist group reportedly controls neighborhoods inside Aden, one of Yemen’s largest cities.
AQAP has also taken advantage of the Houthi coup to ally itself with tribal militias and even government forces in other areas. For instance, in Taiz, which is besieged by Houthi forces, AQAP is practicing a strategy of “integration” and controlling key neighborhoods in the city, The Independent reported last month.
AQAP previously controlled Zinjibar, Jaar, and many other cities and towns in Abyan and Shabwa province between the spring of 2011 and the summer of 2012. The Yemen government, backed by US airstrikes, retook most of the areas after heavy fighting. Wuhayshi, AQAP’s emir at the time, estimated that the group lost more than 500 fighters. Wuhayshi’s estimate was revealed in a letter addressed to the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in August 2013. Wuhayshi said, however, that the sacrifice was worth the cost and that AQAP was able to preserve its top leadership cadre while essentially fighting a rearguard action.
The most recent takeover of Zinjibar and Jaar further debunks the oft-repeated claim that al Qaeda and its branches are not interested in seizing territory and are only focused on conducting spectacular attacks against Western targets. The history of al Qaeda and its regional branches shows that they have consistently fought to capture and hold territory in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Al Qaeda is not myopically focused on launching large-scale terrorist attacks in the West, as some Western analysts wrongly claim.