Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken control of yet another major town in Yemen. The AQAP fighters are led by the brother-in-law of Anwar al Awlaki, and they have sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda.
An AQAP force, led by Tareq al Dhahab, entered the town of Rada’a in Baydah province on Saturday night and laid siege to the police station and other government buildings, according to Reuters. Two policemen were killed in the assault.
“Al Qaeda has raised its flag over the citadel,” a resident in Rada’a told Reuters. “Its members have spread out across the town’s neighborhoods after pledging allegiance to Ayman al Zawahri during evening prayers (on Sunday).”
The AQAP fighters also freed an estimated 250 “al Qaeda militants” from a jail in Rada’a, according to AKI.
Dhahab, the leader of the AQAP force that took control of Rada’a, is a brother-in-law of Anwar al Awlaki, the American citizen who served as a senior cleric and operational commander for AQAP before he was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011. Dhahab was recently transferred to Yemen from Syria, which had captured him while he was attempting to enter Iraq, according to Reuters. It is unclear if Yemeni authorities released him or if he escaped from a Yemeni prison.
AQAP expands area of control in southern Yemen
Rada’a, a town of 60,000 people which is just 100 miles south of the capital of Sana’a, is the latest population center to fall to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
AQAP took control of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, in May 2011. The terror group has battled government forces to a standstill in Zinjibar. Three Yemeni Army brigades – one infantry, one mechanized, and one armored – are involved in the fighting in Zinjibar.
Background on AQAP and Ansar al Sharia
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been fighting under the banner of the Ansar al Sharia, or the Army of Islamic law. Ansar al Sharia constitutes “AQAP’s version of the Islamic State of Iraq,” which is al Qaeda’s political and military front in Iraq, a senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal last year.
“Ansar al Sharia is pulling in allied Islamist groups and sympathetic tribes into its orbit, and seeks to implement an Islamic State much like the Taliban did in Afghanistan and al Qaeda attempted in Iraq,” the official said.
In an official statement released by Ansar al Sharia in May 2011, the group said it wishes to take control of “all administrative, political, economic, cultural, monitoring, and other responsibilities” in Yemen.
AQAP is seeking to build an army to back up its Islamic state. In 2010, Qasim al Raymi, the military commander for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Mohammed Said al Umdah Gharib al T’aizzi, a senior AQAP military commander in southern Yemen, both claimed that the terror group had raised a 12,000-fighter-strong army in the southern Yemeni provinces. Yemeni officials recently told Al Hayah that “al Qaeda fighters in Zinjibar (the capital of Abyan) number in the hundreds, and perhaps exceed 2,000 gunmen.”
The terror group continues to use al Qaeda’s tactic of suicide bombings. In August 2011, Ansar al Sharia released a videotape of a suicide bomber attacking a Yemeni armored column as it traveled from Aden to Zinjibar.
AQAP has taken advantage of the political turmoil in Yemen to seize control of vast areas of the Yemeni south. Since the onset of large anti-government protests in March 2011, AQAP has openly taken control of areas in Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt, Marib, and Lahj provinces. Government forces have withdrawn from several major cities in the south, leaving an opening for al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups to seize control of several areas. Yemenis have described the southern port city of Aden as ripe for an AQAP takeover.
The US in turn was taking advantage of the security vacuum in Yemen to step up attacks against AQAP’s top leaders and its network. The US killed two American AQAP propagandists, Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan, in a Predator airstrike in September 2011, and targeted AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi and media emir Ibrahim al Bana. Wuhayshi and al Bana are believed to have survived the strikes.
The drone program in Yemen was put on hold in October 2011 after Anwar al Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman, was killed in an airstrike that targeted al Bana. Abdul Rahman was a 16-year-old American citizen who had said he hoped “to attain martyrdom as my father attained it” just hours before he was killed, according to a Yemeni journalist.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.