Almost as suddenly as Al Qaeda-linked militants swept into the southern Yemeni towns of Jaar and Zinjibar more than one year ago, they disappeared, say residents who awoke Tuesday morning to find them gone.
Early Tuesday morning, military officials said, an unprecedented offensive by the Yemeni military prompted Ansar al-Shariah militants to retreat from their positions, allowing the government to regain control of the towns for the first time in nearly a year. An odd calm held in both towns, and in their agricultural environs, farmers continued to work their fields, seemingly indifferent to the momentous changes of the past days.
This marks the biggest gains yet in Yemen’s offensive against the militants, in which government troops, backed by local tribesmen, have pushed the Al Qaeda-linked fighters out of much of the province.
But as soldiers celebrated and some residents expressed some cautious hopes for the future, many stressed that, despite the seeming progress, the return of government control was far from guaranteed and that the end of the battle against Al Qaeda and their affiliates in Yemen was far from over.
Many militants fled to other strongholds
Senior government officials openly acknowledged that the bulk of the militants were able to escape to remaining strongholds to the east. And even if many civilians said they welcomed the withdrawal of Ansar al-Sharia and appeared to accept the Army’s presence, many in the province remain deeply ambivalent about the prospect of living under the rule of Yemen’s central government. A minority remain sympathetic to the militants.
Separatist sentiments run high throughout region, where the central government has not traditionally had full control, and many of the tribal fighters that joined the government in the battle against the militants openly advocate for the secession of South Yemen, an independent country until 1990. Many have cautioned that, absent substantive improvements in locals' living conditions, towns like Zinjibar and Jaar could once again erupt in violence, rendering the recent gains superficial.
“The restoration of government services to the people of Abyan is one of our top priorities,” says Gamal al-Aqel, the governor of Abyan, speaking from a hilltop building in Jaar that was one of the militants’ primary bases until just days ago.
Many residents however, however, seemed skeptical of such assurances. In the sweltering town of Jaar, residents were quick to complain of seemingly unending power cuts, pairing happiness about the militants' exit with expressions of anger at what they characterize as the central government’s lack of concern for the town and its neighbors which, despite their proximity to the strategic port of Aden, have long suffered from a dearth of basic government services like water and electricity.
Locals credit armed tribesmen, not government
At the same time, many from Abyan were hesitant to give the military credit for pushing the militants out, instead crediting the so-called “Popular Committees” – organizations of armed tribesmen who joined government forces in the battle against Ansar al-Sharia. Many here accuse northern politicians of collusion with the militants, claiming that they allowed them to take control.
“They basically handed Abyan over to terrorists, and we’re to thank the military for getting them out?” says Ahmed al-Shaawi, a secessionist activist from the town of Lauder, where tribal fighters played a key role in ousting Ansar al-Sharia. “This is a southern victory for the southern people.”
While the militants may have retreated from some of their strongholds in Abyan, there was little sign that they had given up the fight. Fierce battles continued in the coastal town of Shuqra, while scores headed to bastions in the neighboring province of Shabwa. And despite the gains made by Yemen’s military, many here quietly expressed doubts of the government’s ability to translate their progress into lasting gains. With government control barely existent in much of the country, they said, the militants and their allies would have more than enough space to regroup.
“I remain skeptical of the government’s ability to effectively eradicate Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen,” says one Yemeni politician, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “While I hope otherwise, I fear that the expulsion of these militants from Abyan would only mean that the military would be forced to fight a similar battle elsewhere in a few months time.”