Qaeda battles to create safe haven in Yemen
DUBAI AL Qaeda, still smarting from the loss of its iconic leader Osama bin Laden, appears determined to capture the south Yemeni town of Loder in a bid to build itself a secure base in the Arabian Peninsula.
Its location between three provinces gives Loder strategic importance, and it can also provide a safe haven from bombardment from the sea, experts say, adding that the militant group is seeking to extend its influence across the region.
Despite the loss of an estimated 152 men in four days of fighting in and around Loder in Abyan province, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still engaging Yemeni soldiers and local tribesmen in fierce firefights.
“Al Qaeda has practically lost its refuges in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, after it was crushed in Saudi Arabia,” says Mustafa Ani, an expert on jihadi groups.
He says that following Bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan by US special forces on May 1 2011, the network he founded has been weakened and is now “seeking to establish a safe haven in southern Yemen.
“Such a refuge would allow them to set up training camps and centres for recruitment and selection of leaders.” Elements of Al Qaeda, who call themselves Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law), already control large swathes of southern Yemen, notably the Abyan provincial capital of Zinjibar, which they seized in May last year.
The militant group’s task has been made easier by the weakening of central power in Yemen because of the challenge to the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, tribal rivalries and the ambitions of southern autonomists.
“Al Qaeda controls or is able move freely in a crescent of territory stretching from the border with Oman to Abyan and the fringes of Aden through the desert province of Hadramawt,” says Yemeni political analyst Fares al Saqaf.
“It seems that Al Qaeda has changed tactics. Instead of attacking and then fleeing, it has chosen to have a strong presence on the ground,” Saqaf says.
“The network would appear to want to convince people that it represents a kind of administrative group and is no longer made up of hordes of terrorists.” In the areas it controls, Al Qaeda dispenses summary Islamic justice under sharia in addition to trying to administer local affairs.
Saqaf does not rule out collusion between elements of Al Qaeda and soldiers still loyal to Saleh who are accused by the ex-strongman’s opponents of trying to derail the political transition led by his successor, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
And he also says some separatist southerners hostile to the unity of Yemen would not hesitate to collaborate with Al Qaeda if it furthered their aims.