Sumali tells me he cannot "confirm or deny" that Ansar al Sharia is actually AQAP. "What is important for me, as a soldier, is that they have taken up arms against us. Anyone who is attacking our institutions and military camps and killing our soldiers, we will fight them regardless of if they are Al Qaeda affiliates or Ansar al Sharia," he says. "We don't care what they call themselves. And I can't confirm whether Ansar al Sharia is affiliated with Al Qaeda or if they are an independent group."
The capture of Zinjibar came at a time when the Saleh regime was disintegrating and its attention was focused squarely on confronting the mounting campaign to bring down his government. "Ongoing instability in Yemen provides [AQAP] with greater freedom to plan and conduct operations," the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, alleged to the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 31. "AQAP has exploited the political unrest to adopt a more aggressive strategy in southern Yemen, and it continues to threaten US and Western diplomatic interests." Clapper concluded bluntly, "AQAP remains the [Al Qaeda] node most likely to attempt transnational attack."
There is no question that AQAP took advantage of the moment, shrewdly recognizing that its message of a Sharia-based system of law and order would be welcomed by many in Abyan who viewed the Saleh regime as a US puppet. The US missile strikes, the civilian casualties, an almost total lack of government services and a deepening poverty all contributed. "As these groups of militants took over the city, then AQAP came in and also tribes from areas that have been attacked in the past by the Yemeni government and by the US government," says Iryani, the political analyst. "They came because they have a feud against the regime and against the US. There is a nucleus of AQAP, but the vast majority are people who are aggrieved by attacks on their homes that forced them to go out and fight." According to statistics published by the US Agency for International Development, "insecurity displaced more than 40,000 Zinjibaris in 2011."
Unlike the militant movement Al Shabab in Somalia, AQAP has never taken control of significant swaths of territory in Yemen. But Ansar al Sharia pledged to do just that, declaring an Islamic Emirate in Abyan. Once Ansar al Sharia and its allies solidified their grip on Zinjibar, they implemented an agenda aimed at winning hearts and minds. "Ansar al Sharia has been much more proactive in attempting to provide services in areas in Yemen where the government has virtually disappeared," says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. "It has claimed that it is following the Taliban model in attempting to provide services and Islamic government where the central government in Yemen has left a vacuum."
Ansar al Sharia repaired roads, restored electricity, distributed food and began security patrols inside the city and its surroundings. It also established Sharia courts where disputes could be resolved. "Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia brought security to the people in areas that were famous for insecurity, famous for thefts, for roadblocks," says Abdul Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist who regularly interviews Al Qaeda leaders and has spent extensive time in Zinjibar. "The people I met in Zinjibar were grateful to Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia for maintaining security." While the militants in Abyan may be bringing law and order, this is, at times, enforced with horrifying tactics such as limb amputations against accused thieves and public floggings of suspected drug users. In one incident in the Ansar al Sharia–held town of Jaar, residents said they were summoned to a gruesome event where militants used a sword to chop off the hands of two young men accused of stealing electric cables. The amputated limbs were then paraded around the town as a warning to would-be thieves. One of the young men, a 15-year-old, reportedly died soon after from massive blood loss. On February 12, Ansar al Sharia in Jaar publicly beheaded two men it alleged had provided information to the United States to conduct drone strikes. A third man was executed in Shebwa.
In mid-January, Ansar al Sharia overran parts of another town, Radaa, 100 miles southeast of Sanaa, resulting in a fresh round of government shelling and street battles between government forces and Ansar al Sharia and AQAP. "The threat of Al Qaeda is now real and can't be underestimated, especially now that they have found supporters and a safe haven from which to operate," says Sumali.The taking of Zinjibar could be an indication that AQAP is effectively exploiting the growing power vacuum in Yemen. But what could be more dangerous is that support for AQAP's agenda is indigenously spreading and merging with the mounting rage of powerful tribes at US counterterrorism policy and Washington's years of support for the Saleh regime.
By late 2011, the United States had largely withdrawn its military assets from Yemen, including Special Operations forces, leaving much of the coordination for Yemen ops to the US forces stationed in the East African nation of Djibouti, where the United States has a large military base. The US-backed Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and Republican Guard forces no longer operated under the tutelage and direction of their US sponsors. CTU commanders told me in January that they don't even have ammunition for their US-supplied M4 assault rifles. As battles raged at the premier front line in Abyan in late December/early January, Yahya Saleh, the US-backed head of the CTU, was nowhere to be found in Yemen. When I visited a CTU training base outside Sanaa, his men claimed not to know where he was. Senior Yemeni officials also said they had no idea where he was — other than that he was out of the country. They said they did not know when he would return. Eventually, in mid-January, Yahya posted pictures of himself online, hanging out in Havana with the family of Che Guevara.
Rather than fighting AQAP, these US-backed units — created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations — redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people. The US-supported units exist "mostly for the defense of the regime," says Iryani. "In the fighting in Abyan, the counterterrorism forces have not been deployed in any effective way. They are still here in the palace [in Sanaa], protecting the palace. That's how it is." President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged late last year that the "political tumult" has caused the US-trained units "to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP."
The Obama administration was very slow to agitate for Saleh's departure from power, in large part because of counterterrorism concerns. On January 28, Saleh arrived in New York, ostensibly for medical treatment, eliciting charges from his opponents that the United States was protecting him from the wrath of his people. For years, Saleh allowed the United States to regularly strike against AQAP in Yemen, and US Special Operations forces built up the specialized units, run by Saleh's family members, that were widely seen as US surrogates. Saleh's government actively conspired with US officials to cover up the US role in Yemen, at times publicly taking credit for US bombings. Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government's cooperation. "I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it's been during my whole tenure," Brennan declared in September.But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen. Whether a new government would continue the same type of counterterrorism relationship Saleh had with Washington is very much in question. In a series of interviews, Mohammed Qahtan and other leaders of the main opposition group, the Islah Party, sharply criticized US airstrikes in Yemen and the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, saying that they should have been put on trial in Yemen. Qahtan, the leader of Islah's Muslim Brotherhood faction, charged that under Saleh, "The Yemeni government behaved in the war on terror as a contractor for the US," adding that if Islah and its allies take control of the country, "we will not be contractors for the US, implementing what they want according to the money we receive. Our slogan is, 'We are partners, not contractors.'"