A group linked to al-Qaeda has profited from Yemen’s political turmoil, extending its influence in the restive south and hopes to create an Islamic emirate that reaches into the north, residents and analysts said.
Militants from the group known as Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law) are already imposing Islamist law in a string of southern towns which they control, residents said.
“The members of al-Qaeda move freely between the four (adjoining) provinces,” said analyst Zeid al-Sallami, referring to Abyan and Shabwa in the south, the oil-rich Marib in the east al-Jawf in the north.
Strengthened by its recent successes against government forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a fusion of the group’s Yemeni and Saudi branches “is getting ready to proclaim an Islamic emirate in southern Yemen,” he said.
The group may then try to extend its influence north, Sallami added.
Residents said that during 11 months of protests against Yemen’s veteran leader President Ali Abdullah Saleh, fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated group filled the vacuum left by retreating government troops.
“After the outbreak of the ‘Youth Revolution’ the state’s presence started to weaken and we were surprised by the withdrawal of the security services,” said a local official from the city of Azzan in Shabwa province.
“Al-Qaeda, which already had a clandestine presence in our region, has come out into the light and taken control of the city and two other neighboring localities,” the official, who requested anonymity, added.
“Today, the Partisans of Sharia have taken the place of the state: they control the traffic, are repairing the hospital, and are applying the law,” he said.
According to residents, the group's emir, or leader, in Azzan operates out of the police station and judges local disputes.
Those found guilty of theft face punishments that include the amputation of a hand, while those whose behavior is deemed immoral are flogged, witnesses said.
Although the group applies draconian justice, Abdel Wahed, who asked that his family name be withheld, said the Partisans of Sharia are “trying as much as possible to avoid clashes with the residents and the tribes.
“They are even trying to woo them over,” he said.
In addition to Azzan, the Islamist militants have also spread their control over the districts of Huta and Rawda in Shabwa province.
In the neighboring Abyan province, Islamist fighters have also taken advantage of a weakening central authority, seizing control of several towns, including the provincial capital Zinjibar.
Residents reported that government troops withdrew from parts of the region even before the Islamist fighters arrived.
Some of Saleh’s opponents accused the president of deliberately letting the Islamists extend their influence, so that he could present himself as a desperately needed bulwark against the growing al-Qaeda threat.
But Saleh has now signed a deal securing his exit from power, set for February after 33 years in power, and a transitional national unity government was due to be sworn in on Saturday.
As Yemen strives for political stability, government troops continue to clash with Islamist fighters, but have so far been unable to take back full control of southern towns and cities seized by al-Qaeda-linked groups.