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.
Law, order under al-Qaeda
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.