Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) fighters reportedly seized the southern Yemeni town of Ahwar earlier today. A Twitter feed maintained by AQAP’s political and military front, Ansar al Sharia, posted a short message saying that the jihadists have stormed Ahwar and sent their opposition fleeing.
The town is located in the Abyan province, where AQAP’s forces have surged in recent months. According to Reuters, Ahwar and the surrounding areas are “home to more than 30,000 people” and “an important geographic link” that connects areas under AQAP’s control along the coast.
Jihadists and others have tweeted and retweeted several images from Ahwar. The photos were not produced by AQAP’s official propaganda arm, but show ruins of a vehicle allegedly operated by a “gang” that resisted al Qaeda’s men. The leader of this supposed “gang” has also been executed.
Agence France-Presse reported earlier this month that Ahwar had fallen to AQAP, but it appears the operations were ongoing at the time.
It is often difficult to determine whether or not territory is under AQAP’s full control. Southern Yemen is a chaotic war zone and, therefore, reports from the front lines are necessarily uncertain. Reuters cites residents in Ahwar who say that it has fallen to AQAP.
In early April 2015, AQAP seized Mukallah, the capital of Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramout. The jihadists overran Zinjibar, the capital of the Abyan province, and the nearby town of Jaar in December. Then the al Qaeda branch seized the town of Azzan in Yemen’s southeastern Shabwa province earlier this year.
AQAP controls other towns and villages in the south as well, while regularly launching operations in other parts of the country. [For more on the populated areas captured by AQAP see LWJ report, Al Qaeda seizes more territory in southern Yemen.]
AQAP has begun to advertise its control over territory. The group is eager to let followers and others know that it is slowly implementing its harsh version of sharia law on the local populace in various areas. AQAP also wants people to know that it is providing rudimentary governance and social services to the residents. This makes it easier to determine which towns and cities are actually in al Qaeda’s possession.
As The Long War Journal previously reported, a Twitter feed for Al Ather “news” agency began publishing photos and videos of Ansar al Sharia’s supposed good works on Jan. 23. The first photos showed food baskets that were handed out to the “needy” in Mukallah, the port city that fell to AQAP last year. Al Ather has continued to post pictures and videos from southern Yemen in the weeks since then. [See LWJ report, AQAP provides social services, implements sharia while advancing in southern Yemen.]
Although AQAP has lost several key leaders in American drone strikes since early 2015, this has not slowed al Qaeda’s guerrilla war. Among those killed was AQAP’s emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, who also served as a top official in al Qaeda’s global organization. Not only has AQAP continued to gain ground, it also quickly introduced new leaders to serve as public faces for the organization.
AQAP remains openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s global emir. Wuhayshi’s successor as the group’s top leader, Qasim al Raymi, reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri shortly after Wuhayshi’s death.