A U.S.-backed offensive this summer by Yemen’s military and tribal forces eviscerated al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s branch in Yemen, in swaths of the country’s south. But a shadowy conflict has followed, punctuated by suicide attacks, car bombings and assassinations in this strategic corner of the world near crucial oil shipping lanes.
It is a conflict fueled by tribal rivalries and spies, more intense than previous battles, on a landscape that the United States and its allies consider as important a front line as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Nearly every week, violence erupts in Jaar and other parts of southern Yemen, including the port city of Aden, targeting military and security complexes, high-profile generals and government ministers. Sayid’s struggle reflects the jihadists’ determination to remain a force in this region and the limitations of Yemen’s new government and the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
A rare visit by a Western journalist to Jaar, once the militants’ main base and their laboratory to experiment with fundamentalist Islamist rule, revealed how deeply entrenched they remain in the city. Militant cells are actively working to undermine Yemen’s weak government, even as U.S. and Yemeni officials declare progress in the fight against AQAP, as the al-Qaeda affiliate is known.
AQAP operatives killed in U.S. drone attacks are quickly replaced. In Jaar, the militants have declared war against the United States, generating sympathy and recruits from a population that has long opposed U.S. policies in the Middle East.
“They no longer fight face to face,” Sayid said at an empty cement factory in the mountains outside Jaar. “They attack and they vanish, and it’s difficult to track their locations. It’s now a guerrilla conflict, just like what happened in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is largely absent in Jaar, consumed by political turmoil and insecurity in the capital, Sanaa. No police or security forces patrol Jaar. Instead, the government has, in effect, outsourced the fight against AQAP. Maintaining law and order is in the hands of the Popular Resistance Committees, an assembly of ill-equipped tribesmen led by Sayid. They are now the militants’ greatest foes.
“Al-Qaeda will use any means to kill them,” said Ahmed al-Maisari, a former governor of Abyan province, which includes Jaar. “And Abdul Latif is their number-one target.”