Jaar, Yemen — Abdul Latif al-Sayid knows a lot about the al-Qaeda militants lurking in this tense southern town. He knows their tribes, knows their tactics. He knows because he used to be one of them. That’s why they are trying to kill him.
So Sayid, the leader of a tribal militia fighting the Islamist extremists, moves from house to house every few days to throw off their informants. He travels only with trusted bodyguards and sleeps with a Kalashnikov rifle by his side. “Now, the war against al-Qaeda is more dangerous than before,” said Sayid, a thin and bearded 31-year-old who has survived six attempts on his life, including an ambush over the weekend that killed one of his fighters.
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.”
More than a year ago, the Islamist militants swept through Abyan. They took advantage of the political chaos unfolding in the wake of a populist revolt, an extension of the Arab Spring uprisings, which eventually ended the 33-year autocratic rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh this year.
The militants called themselves Ansar al-Sharia, or supporters of sharia, or Islamic law, but they operated under the umbrella of AQAP. They swiftly took over Zinjibar, the provincial capital, as well as Jaar and other towns, as Yemen’s security units fled or were transferred to Sanaa to preserve Saleh’s power.
A sign at the entrance to the tall, brown-brick courthouse, which also served as the police station and jail under the militants, still reads: “The Islamic Emirate of Waqar.”
It’s the name the extremists gave to Jaar. And it was a clear indicator of their desire to create a place that foreign jihadists would use as a launchpad for attacks against the United States and its allies. AQAP has targeted the United States several times since 2009, including an attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner and a plot to send parcel bombs on flights to the United States.
Saleh’s reign was dominated by northerners, who largely ignored Jaar and other towns in the south. Lawlessness ruled Jaar, whose population grew to deeply resent the government. The militants came to this city of 100,000 in March 2011 and quickly restored order. They set up sharia courts and issued harsh punishments, including chopping off thieves’ hands, in the name of a righteous Islam. Many residents here approved.
“When al-Qaeda was here, it was good,” said Anwar Ali Sallam, 30, an employee in the electricity bureau. “There were no robberies. People treated each other in a decent way. No one would try to make problems.”
The militants provided food to the poor, as well as free water and electricity. Many al-Qaeda fighters married into local families. And they used religion to gain support in this conservative Muslim region, where women wear black head-to-toe abayas. The militants woke up residents at dawn to pray and ordered shops closed during mosque prayers.
“They talked about religion in a friendly way until people felt comfortable with them,” said Mohammed Muhsin Mohammed, 21, an unemployed laborer and avid soccer player.
But the militants, who included fighters from other Arab countries and Somalia, also issued many unpopular decrees, banning Arabic music, dance videos and any semblance of Western culture.
They ordered Mohammed and other soccer players to wear long pants instead of shorts, which they defined as inappropriate for a Muslim. Whenever a player scored a goal, his teammates and spectators were not allowed to shout in joy. Instead, they had to yell “Allahu Akbar” — God is great.
To lure recruits, the jihadists would declare through loudspeakers that they were fighting the United States and its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia.
“They would yell, ‘America is controlled by the Jews,’ and that Saleh’s regime was a puppet of America,” Sallam recalled.
Sayid, too, was increasingly fed up with Saleh’s government. So the devout father of two who produced honey for a living joined the militants. “I thought Ansar al-Sharia would improve our lives,” he said.
But he soon became disillusioned with the group’s brutality. Within months of leaving their imprint on Jaar, the militants began targeting anyone they suspected of being against them — and those who questioned their authority.
One of Sayid’s cousins was accused of being a spy and executed in Jaar’s main soccer field. That’s when Sayid defected and started to recruit other tribesmen to turn against the militants.
In August 2011, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a group of AQAP fighters attacked Sayid at his house. The firefight lasted the entire day, he said, and killed three of his lieutenants. But Sayid escaped the scene and fled Jaar.
Outside town, he and his fighters attacked AQAP supply lines and set up ambushes. Soon, other tribesmen joined him.
“Many locals wanted to fight al-Qaeda but were too afraid,” said Mahjoub Numqi, one of Sayid’s top lieutenants. Sayid “broke that barrier of fear.”
Yemen’s military and security forces were unable to dislodge the militants for months. But after Hadi took office in February, he ordered a major offensive, aided by U.S. trainers, advisers and intelligence, as well as airstrikes.
Sayid and his fighters joined the assault. In June, they attacked Jaar from the north as Yemeni military forces came from the west and south, driving the jihadists out of town. But since then, the militants have been striking back, targeting police stations and other government and military buildings. They killed the top military commander in southern Yemen later in June and launched an assault on the headquarters of the intelligence services in Aden last month, killing 20 soldiers and security guards.
In Jaar, the militants have focused on Sayid and his fighters — and they have no shortage of help from sympathetic tribes. “Al-Qaeda stayed in Jaar for more than a year,” Sayid said. “It planted generations of supporters.”
Last month, a man carrying a bomb in a thermos entered Sayid’s family home in Jaar and detonated it during a funeral service for one of his men. The explosion killed two of Sayid’s brothers and 46 of his fighters and injured scores. Two pieces of shrapnel pierced Sayid’s back and neck.
Two days later, a suicide bomber tried to kill him again, raising concerns within his fold that AQAP had infiltrated the Popular Resistance Committees.
Sayid went into hiding.
Today, fear pervades the landscape. Graffiti still announce the jihadists’ rule. Few women venture outside. And lawlessness appears to be seeping back in. The Popular Resistance Committees have arrested several car thieves and other robbers. But the sense of neglect by the new government is causing many to wonder whether life was better under the militants.
“Many people in Jaar want al-Qaeda to come back,” said Sallam, the electricity bureau employee.
Sayid’s fighters patrol the streets atop motorcycles, their Kalashnikovs hanging from their shoulders, or stand guard at checkpoints. They have no illusions about the risks. “Anyone can jump into a crowd and cry ‘Allahu Akbar’ and blow himself up,” Numqi said.
In Zinjibar and other towns, buildings are shattered or pocked with holes from gunfire and mortar rounds. Streets are empty. Although some of the thousands of residents who fled the conflict have returned, many more have not.
Meanwhile, the fighters with the Popular Resistance Committees are facing numerous hurdles. Though they now receive a small monthly stipend from the government, Sayid said he has only one vehicle, and no medium-size weapons to combat AQAP. He has written to Hadi seeking more weapons and assistance, Sayid said. But with Hadi locked in a struggle for power with Saleh’s family and loyalists in the military and government, Sayid said he doesn’t expect much.
Abdulmajeed al-Salahi, an Abyan government official, gave another reason. Even though the government, he said, depends on Sayid’s fighters to battle AQAP, it does not want to create a well-armed militia that could pose a threat in the future.
But for Sayid, “it’s a life-or-death situation now. Whether the government supports us or not, we can’t let go. We will fight until we die.”
Ali Almujahed in Sanaa contributed to this story.