U.S. and Yemeni officials worry that a loss of government control in the south could further destabilize this strategic Middle Eastern nation, already gripped by political paralysis, violent conflicts and fears of collapse.
The government has not allowed journalists to visit Zinjibar. This article is based on more than a dozen interviews with provincial officials, government employees and tribal leaders from Abyan, as well as Yemeni and U.S. officials, and telephone interviews with residents of Zinjibar and surrounding areas.
They describe a ghost town where streets are a canvas of destruction, struck by daily shelling, air assaults and gunfire. There’s no electricity, water or other services. Tens of thousands, mostly women and children, have fled the city. Men have stayed back only to protect their homes. The extremists man checkpoints, and any semblance of authority or governance has vanished.
“They want to create an Islamic emirate,” said Mohammed al-Shuhairi, 50, a journalist in al-Kowd, near Zinjibar. “I have lived through wars here in 1978, 1986 and 1994. But I have never seen anything as bad as this.”
The Islamist extremists are mostly from various Yemeni provinces but also include other Arabs and foreign fighters. They call themselves Ansar al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law, residents said.
In an April 18 interview on jihadist Web sites, Abu Zubayr Adel al-Abab, described as a sharia official with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the Yemen branch is called, said the militants identified themselves as Ansar al-Sharia.
“The name Ansar al-Shariah 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,” said Abab, according to a translation by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.
The takeover of Zinjibar underscores the growing aggressiveness and confidence of AQAP, which appears to be taking advantage of political turmoil triggered by the populist rebellion seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The crisis has further deepened since Saleh was severely wounded in a June 3 assault on his presidential palace, forcing him to fly to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment and raising doubts about his ability to rule.