Yemen militants strike back in the south

Security officials in the south, anti-AQAP militia members and analysts say that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still has large numbers of fighters prepared to reinstate its 'Islamic Emirate' in parts of Abyan and Lahj provinces and expand attacks against government targets.

A man and his daughter displaced by fighting between the army and militants, survey a destroyed neighbourhood in the Yemeni city of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province.
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ADEN // Al Qaeda still has the capacity to undermine Yemen's fragile transition to democracy despite the Yemeni army scoring major victories against the terror network in 2012.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is threatening to retake areas in southern Yemen that it was forced to abandon during a joint US and Yemeni offensive last year.

Security officials in the south, anti-AQAP militia members and analysts told The National that AQAP still has large numbers of fighters prepared to reinstate its "Islamic Emirate" in parts of Abyan and Lahj provinces and expand attacks against government targets.

To highlight the threat posed by militants, they launched numerous attacks between June and December last year, a period in which more than 71 security and counter-terrorism officials were killed, including 12 last month.

"Al Qaeda knows when and how to attack," said Abdulsalam Mohammed, President of the Sanaa-based Abaad Strategic Center. "It wants to disrupt the political progress and it knows that chaos will work in its favour."

Yemen's transitional president, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, has taken a strong stance against terrorism since succeeding Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's long-time president who stepped down in February last year.

Although Mr Hadi's government has struck several blows against AQAP, the terror network is estimated to have thousands of fighters in Yemen, according to Yemeni officials.

Remnants of the Saleh regime have sought to capitalise on the instability, which has put pressure on Mr Hadi, as some Yemenis say they preferred life under Mr Saleh because the country was safer when he was president.

With Mr Saleh set to go to the US for medical treatment, his opponents are upbeat about next month's reconciliation talks, saying the former president's absence will improve the chances of success at the discussions.

But a rejuvenated Al Qaeda threatens to further destabilise the country.

A notable example of AQAP's capabilities was its assassination of Salem Qatan, the commander of the southern military region - a key figure in the country's counter-terrorism efforts in Abyan.

Ali Al Rathi, a political security official in Aden, said that Ansar Al Sharia, which controlled parts of Abyan and that is an offshoot of Al Qaeda, is also planning more attacks.

Even when handicapped by the Yemeni government's counter-terrorism actions, militants have been flexible enough to change their strategy to remain effective.

Their targets have been officials involved in Yemen's counterterror efforts such as Yemen's minister of defence who, for example, was the target of six assassination attempts last year.

AQAP has also retaliated against pro-government tribal fighters who assisted the army in flushing out militants in the south.

The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) played a critical role on the front lines but its members have paid a heavy price for fighting alongside the military.

After the fighting ended last October, the Yemeni army failed to provide protection to the committees and hundreds of fighters have been assassinated by AQAP.

The PRC is unlikely to fight should clashes with AQAP resume, say some fighters.

"Al Qaeda killed more than 400 of our fighters after the war and more will die. This built emotional fear within us and realisation that we could be

killed at anytime," said Ali Radman, a fighter within the resistance committees.

Mr Radman fought Al Qaeda for months and lost four relatives during combat.

He said the government's neglect of fighters might give Al Qaeda the upper hand in future wars. "We were vulnerable after the war but were ignored. It is best that this war is led by the government and not us."

In late August, an Al Qaeda suicide bombing in the Abyan city of Jaar killed 45 committee fighters at a funeral.

Days later, a suicide bomber failed in an attempt to assassinate the PRC leader Abdul Latif Sayyed - the fifth attempt on his life.

At this point, the US had also intensified drone strikes in an attempt to limit Al Qaeda.

Hundreds of suspects militants have been killed by drones but misdirected strikes have stirred public anger.

A drone strike in September hit a bus in Al Baitha province killing thirteen, mostly women and children. Such attacks are helping AQAP, however, as it creates the right conditions for the network to recruit fighters.

Meanwhile Nabil Al Basha, an outspoken member of parliament, expressed his anger and urged the government to take a hard line on the violations of US

drones on Yemeni soil. "Extrajudicial killing is prohibited in all laws and legislation but nothing is currently being done to stop the US drone

assault and the killing of innocent people," said Mr Al Basha.

Under political pressure, Mr Hadi was forced to admit that he had approved US drone strikes in Yemen.

AQAP has also announced its intentions to win back control of Aden, Yemen's business capital.

At least 14 terror attacks were recorded in Aden last year. Its governor is not underestimating the risks but insists they were on high alert.

"We know Al Qaeda wants to retaliate but this is working in our favour," said Waheed Rasheed, Aden governor. "The government is more

cautious and better prepared to take on Al Qaeda."

But Ahmed Al Bahri, a top official in Yemen's opposition Haq Party, sounded a warning.

"It's far from over with Al Qaeda," he said. "Yemen is still the top destination for terror militants."