Al-Qaeda is expanding in Yemen

With the arrival of Ansar al-Sharia to the province of Habban in the Shabwah governorate or the regions closest to it, there is between them and the city of Ataq the capitol of the governorate less than fifty kilometers which is a distance that is comparable to the distance that separates this governorate from Azzan which has been the site from which the political front group for al-Qaeda in Yemen has managed operations for months; in the same province.

This expansion has coincided with the strong return of confrontations in the city of Zinjibar in the governorate of Abyan this week after confrontations had ceased or lessened in frequency since the army had announced that it had entered the city just before it found itself in the eastern outskirts of the city; unable to advance towards the center in order to drive out the armed members of Ansar al-Sharia who were there. In fact, they were not even able to protect themselves from the operations of the gunmen who had seized control over the major parts of the city despite what is said by major media outlets concerning their advances in confrontations.

And while the issue may outwardly appear as if the organization is attempting to expand its geographical scope, in anticipation of any new development that could occur in the governorate of Abyan; specifically Zinjibar, especially in light of the increased numbers of its fighters which grow day after day. However, the organization emphasizes that its presence in the province of Habban was justified by what happened in recent days on the main road in the way of actions that cut off travelers and robbed them.

The latest of these acts demonstrated by some of the highway robbers/bandits occurred to a train in the region of Qarn as-Sawdāʾ that was seized. And Qarn as-Sawdāʾ is a region located between an-Nuqbah and al-ʿAram in the direction of al-Maḥfid. And the engineer of the train did not find anyone who would answer his pleas to return it except for Ansar al-Sharia who in turn would respond to him and the pleas of the travelers who were generally passing through those roads.

The Ansar al-Sharia organization over the past few weeks has worked to secure the main road that connects the Shabwah, Abyan, and Ḥaḍramawt governorates in the provinces of al-Maḥfid within the governorate of Shabwah and the Aḥwar district in the governorate of Abyan after the two provinces witnessed unprecedented acts of highway robbery.

It is appropriate to mention that more than one province in the governorate of Shabwah used to approach Ansar al-Sharia inviting their presence in their respective regions after their ability to enforce peace in the city of ʿAzzān which falls under the authority of the Mayfaʿah district became clear. However, they did not respond quickly to those invitations out of fear that there would not be unanimous acceptance amongst the people.

And if Ansar al-Sharia had not been successful in making the roads safer regardless of whether it was the roads that connected the various districts of the governorate of Shabwah or the roads that connected all of the governorate to the surrounding governorates. Indeed, their legendary reputation without a doubt will grow due to the fact that ensuring safety on those roads which are very long and extensive is not an easy task in a land where people generally avoid travel between the governorates at night because of what occurs from the like of looting, highway robbery, and even murder.

And perhaps the one who travels from Ṣanʿāʾ to the governorate of Maʾrib or from Ṣanʿāʾ to the governorate of Ḥudaydah or from Ṣanʿāʾ to Ṣaʿidah or from other roads that connect many of the governorates; maybe this individual can appreciate the importance of safe roads.

It should also be pointed out here that the information that has been conveyed from the city of ʿAzzān in the governorate of Shabwah confirms that Ansar al-Sharia launched a local radio station broadcasting from a limited short-wave FM channel that broadcast jihadist chanting (anāshīd) and lectures. And the idea of broadcasting came months after the idea of a newsletter which would be published every ten days and would also spread news of recent developments concerning the organization in two governorates; Abyan and Shabwah. The two ideas come from the organization’s relentless efforts to develop multi-media outlets.

And expansion is a necessity:

Ansar al-Sharia or the al-Qaeda organization in Yemen should not be considered merely a group of militant individuals who seek refuge in the caves of rugged mountains using them as hiding places as they did in the past. Rather, they have become large groups consisting of thousands of fighters and callers. And their presence is to manage the affairs of people like authorities.

In this situation, it became difficult for al-Qaeda operatives to return to what they were previously upon since there isn’t a sufficient amount of rugged mountain caves in Yemen to shelter all of these troops in addition to the difficulty related to moving these large numbers. And the organization also will not surrender them to subjugation like inmates in the prisons of the next regime which is expected to be more serious in its war with the organization.

And from these fears, the idea of expansion and land acquisition arose. On the one hand, the organization would be able to interrupt the efforts of its enemies and on the other hand it would grant its fighters a large area of land that would allow them to travel easily if situations became difficult in any other region that they control.

And al-Qaeda in Yemen knows very well that they will engage in fierce battles in the governorate of Abyan after the issues related to the transference of power with those who have labeled them “the new agents” since their eventual elimination or weakening is from the main priorities of external support for the new government. And al-Qaeda will not wait until this happens to begin its geographical are expansion or the examination of other options.

Other options:

While strategic geographical expansion is important to the al-Qaeda network in Yemen, to avoid what might happen in the future; there are other available options. It also believes that there is an attempt to confine it to a specific governorate or region in order to make its impending elimination easier; especially since the available regions are not free from the watchful eyes of their enemies and their constant monitoring.

For this reason, the organization has recently enthusiastically established an inconspicuous presence in many of the governorates and regions of Yemen like numerous sleeper cells which can be mobilized for the purpose of publically relieving the organization of pressure in the regions where they are present if future pressure should occur. It is an action that the organization believes is very effective and could possibly implement it in the Laḥij governorate and in the city of Aden during the intense bombing of Abyan it could pay off.

Many of those who recently fled from the various governorates of Yemen to Abyan and Shabwah, were trained by the organization in its specific methods and then returned to their respective governorates from which they came. Al-Qaeda may have ulterior motives for this action. What is certain is that the organization always takes the next phase and its consequences into account and strives to prepare for it from this very moment in different ways. From them is the way that is apparent for all to see. From them is what remains secret and clandestine within the framework of its plans for the next phase of military action.

What is expected to occur according to the organization’s approach to military issues is that it will respond to its enemies “new government forces” in a similar manner; meaning just as they threaten our security in the regions that we control where we manage the affairs, we will also threaten your security in the regions that you control where you manage the affairs. However, our tools are far more effective and our extensive experience gives us the advantage in these matters.

This is essentially what Anwar al-Awlaki said concerning the organization’s strategy in dealing with the United States of America while he considered the operation that was about to be undertaken by the young Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab during the time when American communities were celebrating Christmas in response to what American airstrikes had done in terms of killing women and children in the village of al-Majalah in the governorate of Abyan in the year 2009.

Likewise, the operation that targeted a bus carrying a group of individuals from the Political Security Organization (PSO) in 2009 which occurred in the capitol of Ṣanʿāʾ. This operation came in retaliation to what government forces had done in the governorate of Maʾrib during the same year according to the official military chief & spokesperson for al-Qaeda Abu Hurayrah as-San’ani.

And perhaps the capitol of Ṣanʿāʾ and the city of Aden staged the event because operations in those two cities are particularly sensitive for local systems as well as other foreign systems. And perhaps the organizations repeated operations in Aden against those associated with security services and agencies recently was a prelude to that. As for the capitol of Ṣanʿāʾ, then in spite of its presence there, it appears to have taken into account the sensitivity of the current revolutionary sentiment there, however the situation in the future will not be as it is today.

The regions in which there are Ansar al-Sharia represent important points of pressure for them because of the fact that these regions where they are present or their neighboring governorates are Yemen’s primary sources of gas and oil. The organization could rely upon the use of this pressure if the new government decided to interact with the regions under its authority under exceptional circumstances wherein services and other than that are provided in the future for the purpose of instilling harmony between them and the local population in the areas under their control; in the words of some of their fighters.

Expelling it (Ansar al-Sharia) from the regions under their authority is not an easy task. Even if they were to find active operatives in those areas with connections to agencies in the new government, it is still possible to bet regarding a potential end to their fighting against the organization, like the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood who maintain a large presence in the two regions which are under the control or mostly under the control of the organization; particularly the governorate of Shabwah.

The organization maintains de facto control over the territories under its authority:

Perhaps the interests of the people are connected in the various walks of life by the presence of the organization in the region of Abyan more so than the connection to the interests of the people and their respective regions. And life is arranged in this manner for approximately one year in those regions which places us in a position where we must confront a situation of intermingling that would be difficult to interrupt in the future even with military intervention.

In light of this the people will find themselves among the ranks of the al-Qaeda organization for defense of their mutual interests to the extent that in the case that any extensive military action is taken against it, taking into consideration that there are detractors of the organization in the regions under their control just as there are those who are affected by the fighting that transpired in the governorate of Abyan during the past months between the organization and the government forces. And the air raids that were launched by Yemeni, Saudi, and American fighter jets played a large role in this.

News of the clashes in Zanzibar from its sources:

Some media outlets picked up news of the latest clashes that occurred in the city of Zanzibar between the army and the armed members of al-Qaeda. It has been reported from these media outlets from eyewitness accounts in a city where there is no presence outside of the army and armed al-Qaeda fighters. These media outlets also conveyed news which indicated the existence of significant observed progression of the army’s forces from the eastern direction towards the city in which they were stationed for months; meaning since its arrival in those regions from the frontlines of Dofas wherein they remained for approximately four months without being able to advance until after withdrawing the organization’s fighters from the front lines.

Likewise, these same media outlets discuss the dozens of dead from the ranks of the armed al-Qaeda fighters. And from what has been circulated by a local daily newspaper, the death toll of the organization’s fighters during a three day period reached approximately seventy casualties including foreign military leaders. This figure is significant because the numbers of al-Qaeda fighters stationed in the region of Bajdar which is considered the line of demarcation between the two parties is considerably less. The number of those who were stationed there from the al-Qaeda fighters does not even reach twenty-five gunmen which is a third of the casualties mentioned by those media outlets.

Sources in al-Qaeda scoffed at the numbers cited by some media outlets; particularly the local media and emphasized through its communication with the newspaper “al-Wasaṭ” that what happened was the opposite of what was spread by local news agencies. They claimed that the organization’s fighters, according to the al-Qaeda source who prefers that his name is not mentioned, that there were approximately fifty individuals from the counter-terrorism forces who wore black uniforms that were killed, in his words.

The sources added that they were able to destroy five army tanks, a set of armored vehicles, and a set of military Krad rockets whereas only a single individual named Ibrāhīm aṣ-Ṣanʿāʾī is claimed to have fallen from the ranks of the al-Qaeda organization last Monday.

These sources confirmed that the army attempted to advance from the eastern side of the city. However, the losses incurred during the three days of conflict forced it into retreat in order to suffice themselves thereafter with random shelling and missile strikes of the various regions of the city of Zanzibar.

And what occurs today from the frontlines of Bajdar brings to mind what used to occur from the frontlines of Dofas during the past few months except that whatever occurred later did not resemble the issues in the Dofas conflict since the organization used to engage in conventional warfare. Conversely, what happened in Bajdar is a manifestation of conflicts that resemble gang wars as well as conventional wars in addition to the differences in circumstances and the nature of the land wherein there are ongoing battles on the grounds that Bajdar is unexposed and its terrain is favorable for ambushes which means that from a tactical standpoint, the organization might not retreat from there as they did from the front lines of Dofas because they exist in a manner that does not require their immediate withdrawal.

And if arriving at the Liwa region which was the site of siege over the mechanic 25th brigade which was brought to an end through a major military campaign after a period of seven months, although it was not a purely military effort. Certainly, the liberation of an entire governorate along with its eleven districts from the control of al-Qaeda will require years; particularly if the circumstances of the government has not stabilized under the newly elected Muḥammad Sālim Bāsindawah.