Gen. Mohammed al-Sumali sits in the passenger seat of his armored Toyota Land Cruiser as it whizzes down the deserted highway connecting the Yemeni port city of Aden to Abyan province, where Islamist militants have overrun the provincial capital of Zinjibar. Sumali, a heavy-set man with glasses and a mustache, is the commander of the 25th Mechanized Brigade of the Yemeni armed forces and the man charged with cleansing Zinjibar of the militants. Sumali's task carries international significance: retaking Zinjibar is seen by many as a final test of the flailing regime of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the unpopular ruler who has deftly exploited the US government's perception of him as an ally in the fight against terrorism to maintain his grip on power.
The only real traffic on this road consists of refugees fleeing the fighting and heading toward Aden, and military reinforcements moving toward Zinjibar. Sumali did not want to drive out to the front lines on this day and tried to dissuade the journalists in his office. "You know there could be mortars fired at you," he tells us. Twice, the militants in Zinjibar tried to assassinate the general in that very vehicle. There is a bullet hole in the front windshield, just above his head, and another in his side window, the spider web cracks from the bullets' impact clearly visible. When we agree not to hold him or his men responsible for what might happen to us, he relents, and we pile in and take off.
As we ride along the coast of the Arabian Sea, past stacks of abandoned mortar tubes, Russian T-72 tanks dug into sand berms and the occasional wandering camel, General Sumali gives his account of what happened on May 27, 2011. On that day, several hundred militants laid siege to Zinjibar, thirty miles northeast of the important southern city of Aden, killing several soldiers, driving out local officials and taking control within two days. Sumali attributes the takeover to an "intelligence breakdown," explaining, "We were surprised in late May with the flow of a large number of terrorist militants into Zinjibar." He adds that the militants "raided and attacked some security sites. They were able to seize these institutions. We were surprised when the governor, his deputies and other local officials fled to Aden." As the Yemeni military began fighting the militants, General Sumali tells me, men from Yemen's Central Security Forces fled, abandoning heavy weaponry as they retreated. The CSF, whose counterterrorism unit is armed, trained and funded by the United States, is commanded by President Saleh's nephew Yahya. (A media outlet associated with the militants reported that they seized "heavy artillery pieces, modern antiaircraft weapons, a number of tanks and armored transports in addition to large quantities of different kinds of ammunition.")
Sumali says that as his forces attempted to repel the attack on Zinjibar in early June, they were attacked by the militants using the artillery seized from the CSF units. "Many of my men were killed," he says. The Islamist fighters also conducted a series of bold raids on the base of the 25th Mechanized on the southern outskirts of Zinjibar. In all, more than 230 Yemeni soldiers have been killed in battles with the militants since last May. "These guys are incredibly brave," the general concedes, speaking of the militants. "If I had an army full of men with that bravery, I could conquer the world."
According to critics of the crumbling Saleh regime, Sumali's account is charitable at best about the role played by the Yemeni security forces in Zinjibar. They allege that Saleh's forces allowed the city to fall. The fighting there began as Saleh faced mounting calls both inside and outside Yemen for his resignation; several of his key allies had defected to the growing opposition movement. After thirty-three years of outwitting his opponents, they say, Saleh saw that the end was near. "Saleh himself actually handed over Zinjibar to these militants," asserts Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a well-connected political analyst. "He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists." That theory, while unproven, is not baseless. Since the mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and continuing after 9/11, Saleh has famously milked the threat of Al Qaeda and other militants to leverage counterterrorism funding and weapons from the United States and Saudi Arabia, to bolster his power within the country and to neutralize opponents.
A Yemeni government official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak publicly about military issues, admitted that troops from the US-trained and -supported Republican Guard did not respond when the militants entered the town. Those forces are commanded by Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali. Neither did those forces loyal to one of the most powerful military figures in the country, Gen. Ali Mohsen, commander of the 1st Armored Division, move in. Two months before Zinjibar was seized, Mohsen had defected from the Saleh regime and was supporting his overthrow.
Moreover, just who exactly these militants were who overtook Zinjibar is a matter of some dispute. According to the Yemeni government, they were operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group Washington has identified as the single most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States. But the militants who took the city did not claim to be from AQAP. Instead, they announced themselves as a new group, Ansar al Sharia, or Supporters of Sharia. Senior Yemeni officials told me that Ansar al Sharia is simply a front for Al Qaeda. They point out that the first known public reference to the group was made a month before the attack on Zinjibar by AQAP's top cleric, Adil al-Abab. "The name Ansar al Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah," he said, adding that the new name was intended to put the focus on the message of the group so as to avoid being bogged down with the baggage of the Al Qaeda brand. Whether Ansar al Sharia had more independent origins or it's merely a product of AQAP's crude rebranding campaign, as Abab claims, the group's significance would soon extend well beyond Al Qaeda's historically limited spheres of influence in Yemen while simultaneously popularizing some of AQAP's core tenets.
As we make our way with General Sumali down the abandoned highway, we pass the May 22 "Unity" Stadium, which was meticulously refurbished for the November 2010 Gulf 20 soccer tournament. It was meant to serve as a symbol that Yemen was safe for tourists. Indeed, thousands flocked to the country — many from neighboring Saudi Arabia and East Africa — to cheer for their teams. Luxury hotels were built for the occasion, and foreign dignitaries, including a few heads of state, came to Yemen for the opening ceremonies, which were presided over by President Saleh. A campaign involving "moderate" clerics from other Arab nations was simultaneously launched, called "the Battle of Hearts and Minds Against Al Qaeda."
Six months later, the new hotels were vacant, and the stadium had become an emblem of instability. During the fighting over Zinjibar, the militants seized the stadium and Sumali's forces had to shell it to force them back. As we drive past it, the damage is clear in the charred ruins of the upper rafters.
We pass the first front line on the outskirts of Zinjibar, "Tiger 1," and drive a half-mile to "Tiger 2." Sumali reluctantly agrees to let us get out. "We will only stay for two minutes," he says. "It's dangerous here." The general is soon besieged by his men. They look thin and haggard, many with long beards and tattered uniforms or no uniforms at all. Some of them plead with Sumali to write them notes authorizing additional combat pay. One of the soldiers tells him, "I was with you when you were ambushed. I helped fight off the attack." Sumali scribbles on a piece of paper and hands it to the soldier. The scene continues until Sumali gets back into the Toyota. As we drive away, he speaks from his armored vehicle through a loudspeaker at his men. "Keep fighting. Do not give up!"