Al Qaeda militants just captured the Yemeni city of Azzan, the latest sign that the group is capitalizing on the chaos wrought by nearly a year of bloody multi-sided civil war.
Azzan, home to around 70,000, is a major commercial center in the Shabwa province. It had been under al Qaeda control from 2011 to 2012, until government forces ejected the group in a much touted offensive. On Monday, security officials and residents reported that local militiamen defending the city retreated in the face of an al Qaeda advance. By midday on Monday, fighters with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had set up security checkpoints around the town and the group's black flag could be seen on government buildings.
"Dozens of al Qaeda gunmen arrived in the early hours of the morning and set up checkpoints at the entrances to the town and in its streets," a resident who declined to be named told Reuters by telephone. "They planted their black flag on government buildings."
"They faced no resistance or clashes," the resident said, adding that tribal militia forces quit the area as it was being taken over.
In the spring of 2015 the Houthis — a Shiite movement from the North that has long sought greater independence — joined forces with Yemen's ex-President Abdullah Saleh, and ousted sitting president President, Abd Mansour Hadi. Hadi fled and found refuge across the border in Saudi Arabia.
For the past 11 months, the Saudis and their allies in the Gulf have launched a bombing campaign in Yemen, backed by US logistical and intelligence support, aimed at reinstating Hadi. Saudi and its allies claim the Houthis are in fact proxies of Iran.
Amidst the chaos, al Qaeda has expanded its footprint in Yemen. A month into the Saudi bombing, AQAP took over the port city of Mukalla, and has been steadily expanding its zone of control along the southern coast.
Thomas Joscelyn, an AQAP expert and editor of the Long War Journal, says that militants are the clearest beneficiaries of the security vacuum ushered in by the civil war. "Before the war, there was a concentrated effort on the ground to take on AQAP in Yemen," Joscelyn explains. "Now, we don't have that option on the table — the multi-sided civil war has so many interests competing against each other, no one is that concerned is turning back AQAP advances."
Atrocities committed by both sides have also polarized Yemeni society, allowing for AQAP and its allies to make inroads. According to the UN, Saudi bombing in Yemen has disproportionately impacted non-military targets, killing around 1600 civilians over the past year. The Houthis too are accused of human rights abuses, including using civilians as human shields.
The civilian toll of the conflict is staggering. Kyung-Wha Kang, the UN's assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council in December that around 7.6 million people — almost a third of the population — are now in need of emergency food supplies to survive "At least two million people are malnourished, including 320,000 children who suffer from severe malnutrition, " Kang said. "While some 14 million people lack adequate access to health-care assistance, Yemen's health system is close to collapse."
At the same time, AQAP is trying to win over local tribal leaders and religious organizations ot its cause. "AQAP tells people they are the only ones representing the local interests," Josslyn said. In Mukalla, AQAP's Yemeni base, the group has managed to form alliances with local tribes and religious institutions to jointly rule the city. Some of its allies have even managed to initiate talks with the Saudi government to negotiate over the fate of the city.
The US, meanwhile, routinely launches drone strikes into AQAP-controlled areas. Those strikes have repeatedly taken out top commanders— in June, a strike killed Nasir Al Wuhayshi, the group's leader. But AQAP has proven to have a deep bench. "These drone strikes are nowhere near a knock-out blow," Josselyn said. "They are able to roll out new leaders in public quickly."
In the end, the drones may be doing more to drive locals into the arms of AQAP than to damage the group. In fact, a September report by the UN found US drone attacks are responsible for killing more civilians than AQAP itself.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, largely avoids al Qaeda areas in its bombing runs. And while the Houthis and AQAP do sometimes clash, the former group is mostly focused on pushing back Saudi Arabia and its allies.
AQAP is of course still a major priority for US and European intelligence agencies. It claimed responsibility for the deadly January 2015 attack in Paris on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the group's territory in Yemen is considered a potential staging ground for international attacks. But the ongoing civil war makes taking on AQAP a serious challenge. "We have a multi-sided proxy war," Jocelyn said. "The US isn't going to get directly involved, so we are going to be beholden to our proxy's strategy."