Middle East
4:59 pm
Thu June 21, 2012

Al-Qaida Takes To The Hills Of Yemen's Badlands

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 12:31 pm

Yemen's offensive against al-Qaida has focused on territory in the south of the country that the militants have held for nearly a year. With the backing of the U.S., Yemen's army has cleared al-Qaida and its allies. But many local residents believe the fight is far from over. Kelly McEvers spent several days in southern Yemen and filed this report.

We're in a Yemeni army land cruiser with a shattered windshield. Our destination is the town of Shaqra, the last town in the al-Qaida badlands before the sandy ground turns into mountains.

Until last week, it was the final town in southern Yemen's Abyan province that was held by al-Qaida and its local partner, Ansar al-Sharia.

The Yemeni soldiers are taking us to where their final battles with the al-Qaida militants happened the day before. Yemeni state TV has been taking great pains to paint this offensive as a victory.

But when we get to Shaqra, it's a slightly different story.

Shaqra looks like a normal town: no real heavy military presence, people out in the streets, no evidence of bullets or artillery, no soldiers holding territory. It doesn't look like there was much of a fight.

Everything Not As It Appears

But the soldier who's driving us is afraid to even turn off the main street. He says that most of the people here are "dogs" who are with al-Qaida; he is afraid that if we turn off the main road, they will shoot at our military car.

In other words, it does not seem as if the military actually controls the area.

This seems to confirm what al-Qaida has been saying. It claims it has not been defeated in these towns, but rather its leaders mounted a tactical retreat, back to the mountains.

We pull up to a shop in search of water. People crowd around our truck while the soldiers are inside. I'm warned to turn off the tape recorder, but I turn it on again once we're back on the bumpy road.

"You should come and take a picture of the houses. Children were killed, people were killed," one Yemeni civilian says.

I look at a soldier and ask, "Like a bomb coming from the air?" He says yes.

The soldiers won't take us to the site of the bombing. But we later confirm that there was an airstrike in Shaqra that killed six children and one woman the day before we visited. It's still not clear whether the Yemeni air force launched the strike, or whether it came from a U.S. military or CIA drone.

Strong Anti-Government Sentiment

All of these weapons are being employed in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen right now. And it certainly complicates the picture in Shaqra and other towns in the area.

Residents say it has increased their anger toward the governments of both Yemen and the U.S.

This is worrisome in Yemen's south, which was an independent country until 1990. In the past year, some people have been pushing for independence again.

As we drive by southern tribesmen who worked with Yemeni soldiers to rout al-Qaida, they flash the "V" sign — not, residents say, because they're claiming victory over al-Qaida, but to show how they still hope to claim victory over the central government.

Many of these tribesmen are now manning checkpoints. We find a group of them holding a post office they say al-Qaida militants trashed.

The men say they are volunteers and that so far the government only gives them food and a few bullets. They say they hope the government army will give them jobs someday.

The men say there is a "promise" the government will put them in the army. If that doesn't happen? Easy, the men say. We'll get rid of them.

As we leave the al-Qaida badlands behind, a Yemeni colleague plays a song that's big these days.

"O leaders where are you?" the song goes. "Where is our dignity and honor?"

Then the singer issues a kind of threat to the Yemeni government. When the volcano explodes, he says, it will burn.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Yemen this week, the U.S.-backed offensive against al-Qaida suffered a blow. The newly appointed commander of Yemeni forces in the country's south was assassinated. He had launched and commanded the offensive there. A suicide bomber killed him in front of his home.

NPR's Kelly McEvers traveled recently to territory in the south that had been held by al-Qaida and its allies.Yemeni forces say they have retaken it. But as Kelly saw, the fight is far from over.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: All right, yeah, so we're getting in our vehicle now, at this final checkpoint - headed, presumably, to the front lines. Yes.

We're in a Yemeni army Land Cruiser with a shattered windshield. Our destination is the town of Shaqra. It's the final town in this province that up till last week, was held by al-Qaida and its local partner, Ansar al-Sharia; basically, the last town in the al-Qaida badlands before the sandy ground turns into mountains.

Here we go.

The idea is that these Yemeni soldiers are taking us to where their final battles with the al-Qaida militants happened, just the day before. Yemeni state TV has been taking great pains to paint this offensive as a victory. But when we get to Shaqra, it's a slightly different story.

We are now in the center of Shaqra. It looks like a normal town - no real heavy military presence; everybody is out in the middle of the street.

No evidence of bullets or artillery; no soldiers holding territory. In other words, it doesn't look like there was much of a fight here. The soldier who's driving us is afraid to even turn off the main street.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

He's saying that most of the people here are dogs. They're with al-Qaida; and afraid that they - if we go- even inside and (unintelligible) inside the city, they can shoot at the military car. They're not anywhere trusted.

MCEVERS: Which says, to me, that the military does not control this area.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not at all. I don't think so - at all.

MCEVERS: This seems to confirm what al-Qaida has been saying in recent days. It's not so much that they were defeated in these towns, but that their leaders mounted a tactical retreat, back to the mountains.

We pull up to a shop to see if we can get some water. While the soldiers are inside, people crowd around our truck. I'm warned to turn off the tape recorder - but turn it on again, once we're back on the bumpy road.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE)

MCEVERS: Some guys came up to the truck and were saying, you know, you should come and take a picture of the houses. Their children were killed; people were killed. And I looked at one soldier, and I said - like, I pointed at the air; like, a bomb coming from the air? And he said yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: The soldiers won't take us to the site of the bombing. But we later confirm there was an airstrike in Shaqra - that killed six children and one woman - just the day before we visited. It's still not clear whether the Yemeni air force launched the strike, or if it was a U.S. military or CIA drone. All of these are being employed in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen right now. And they certainly complicate the picture here in Shaqra, and other towns.

Not only do people here say it only increases their anger against the U.S. - seen as an evildoer that kills innocent bystanders - but also against the Yemeni government. This is even more worrisome here in Yemen's south, which was its own country up until 1994, and which has seen some people pushing for independence again, in the past year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: As we drive by southern tribesmen who worked with these Yemeni soldiers to rout al-Qaida, they flash the V sign - not, residents say, because they're claiming victory over al-Qaida, but to show they still hope to claim victory over the central government. A lot of these tribesmen are now manning checkpoints here. We find a group of them holding a post office they say was trashed by al-Qaida militants.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: So I'm saying - they didn't get allowance. He's saying it's supposed to be with the (unintelligible), the leader of them. However...

MCEVERS: The men tells us they are just volunteers; that so far, the government only gives them food and a few bullets. They say they hope the government army will give them jobs someday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: That is a promise - they will put us in the army. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MCEVERS: What if they don't?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Easy, they say. We'll get rid of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: As we leave the al-Qaida badlands behind, a Yemeni colleague plays a song that's big these days: Oh leaders, where are you, the song goes. Where is our dignity and honor? Then the singer issues a kind of threat to the Yemeni government. When the volcano explodes, he says, it will burn.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sanaa, Yemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.