“We are like an island in a sea of al-Qaeda,” said Lt. Abdul Mohamed Saleh, standing at a checkpoint on a desolate highway that connects Zinjibar with the port city of Aden. “We are surrounded from every direction.”
The battle is but one in a broader struggle that has upended Yemen over the past year and left the country badly fragmented. With pro-democracy demonstrators now in the 11th month of a populist uprising that has forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to agree to step down, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its sympathizers have taken full advantage of the turbulence.
In May, they overran large swaths of Abyan province, including this regional capital. Today, they rule over significant territory in this strategic region, near important oil shipping lanes.
The al-Qaeda affiliate has already targeted the United States several times, including sending parcel bombs on flights into the country last year. Its stated goal is to create an Islamic emirate in Yemen, which American officials fear could be used as a base to plan more attacks against the United States.
That base may already be taking shape. A rare recent visit to Zinjibar, the first by a Western journalist since the Islamist fighters swept into the city, revealed just how entrenched the militants have become here.
An easy takeover
At the gate of the only military base left in this ghostly city, Ali al-Katib peered up and down the deserted road. Clutching a walkie-talkie and a Kalashnikov rifle, the Yemeni soldier looked as haggard as the battered landscape.
“They’ve attacked us three times already today,” Katib said, his emotions rising.
Saleh’s government has a mixed record of combating extremist groups. He is a nominal U.S. ally who has pledged to defeat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. But critics say his government is primarily responsible for the instability that has allowed the group and other militant organizations to thrive.
Although the pro-democracy demonstrators have no sympathy for AQAP, the group is one of several regional forces that have seized on the chaos of the uprising to grab territory and power. Many fear that Yemen could face years of turmoil before a system emerges to unify the country.
In the north, Shiite Houthi rebels control three provinces. In the south, secessionist voices are growing louder. And in the divided capital, Sanaa, armed tribesmen and defected military units control entire neighborhoods, driven by fears that Saleh plans to hang on to power. His family and loyalists remain in control of the security forces and hold key government positions.