Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has published a two-page statement online confirming the group’s withdrawal from the Yemeni port city of Mukalla that occurred one week ago. AQAP members and supporters have discussed the retreat on social media in the days since, but the organization did not officially comment until its statement yesterday.
AQAP’s message is addressed to the people of Hadramout, the coastal province where Mukalla is located. The group’s explanation illustrates, once again, al Qaeda’s concern with building and preserving popular support.
The al Qaeda branch claims it was necessary to leave Mukalla in order to protect the city’s civilians.
“We only withdrew to make the enemy miss the opportunity to take the battle to your houses and markets, and your roads and mosques, for those people do not care about the believers,” the statement reads, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
AQAP blames the Arab coalition that took over Mukalla for killing “dozens” of Muslims during its bombing campaign, which supposedly struck “civilian institutions” such as markets and a gas station. “So when we saw this, we took the initiative to stop this evil plan and halt this dirty war, and we decided to fight our enemy as we want, not as they want,” AQAP says of its withdrawal.
Mukalla fell to AQAP in early April 2015 and the jihadists controlled it for just over one year. During that time, AQAP says, the people of the region learned that the jihadists’ faith was pure and that governance under their version of sharia law was a boon for the region.
“We have lived with you for a year, and so we knew you as our people, brothers, and loved ones,” the message continues, according to SITE. “We saw in you faith, morals, generosity, and sacrifice. Thus, magnified in you is your great position that history will not forget, for you have known us and found us to be your loyal sons.”
AQAP says that it sought to implement sharia law “in all of its comprehensiveness and mercy” and, as a result, Hadramout enjoyed “peace and security” as the economy “flourished.”
AQAP’s statement is consistent with the arguments previously made by Nasir al Wuhayshi in private correspondence. Wuhayshi, who was Osama bin Laden’s protégé prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, was AQAP’s emir until he was killed in a US drone strike in June 2015.
In a pair of letters written in 2012, Wuhayshi explained the benefits of the jihadists’ rule over southern Yemen, highlighting the popular support his men were able to build. Wuhayshi’s men were ultimately driven from their southern Yemeni strongholds in 2012, just as AQAP left Mukalla in April of this year. In both instances, however, the al Qaeda branch laid the groundwork for longer-term rule.
“It was a period of time given to us by Allah, in which we enforced sharia for nearly one year, and we got to know people intimately, and they came to know us,” Wuhayshi wrote to the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, on Aug. 6, 2012. “People were able to see examples of fighters and emirs that they have never seen in their life before — an emir who eats with the poor, and sits with them on the same mat, an emir without doors, or servants, whom they can see in the street, mosque or market. And who quickly answers their demands, redresses the oppressed and gives rights back to their owners.”
Wuhayshi continued: “People knew to what extent we abide by the rules of sharia, and that this method of rule is fit for every era and place. They have also seen that justice would only be achieved in this way. The days we spent with them were our very best.”
Similarly, AQAP says in its new statement that over the past year the “people” of Mukalla “saw the forgiveness of Islam and the justice of sharia.”
AQAP blames the “Christian Crusader America” for mobilizing the Arab coalition that forced the jihadists to retreat. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) allegedly acted as a “hired gun in this battle.” Curiously, the group does not mention Saudi Arabia, which has led the Arab alliance and its air campaign.