For all intents - al Qaeda has her very own mini State!
Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.
If Islamic State’s capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa, then al Qaeda’s is Mukalla, a southeastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Al Qaeda fighters there have abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which they boast about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.
AQAP boasts 1,000 fighters in Mukalla alone, controls 600 km (373 miles) of coastline and is ingratiating itself with southern Yemenis, who have felt marginalised by the country’s northern elite for years.
By adopting many of the tactics Islamic State uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP has expanded its own fiefdom. The danger is that the group, which organised the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its hardline ideology.
Tribal leaders in neighbouring provinces told Reuters that, in the security vacuum, army bases were looted and Yemen’s south became awash with advanced weaponry. C4 explosive and even anti-aircraft missiles were available to the highest bidder.
Tribes who work with al Qaeda now control much of the country’s oil infrastructure. Six white oil tanks on a beach between Mukalla and Ash Shihr are linked by pipeline to the Masila oilfields which are estimated to hold more than 80 percent of Yemen’s total reserves.
In the five coastal provinces stretching from the government’s temporary seat in Aden to Mukalla, a familiar pattern has recurred in recent months. Al Qaeda forces storm a town, plant their flags, and then watch as local leaders acquiesce.
AQAP has also learned to be less cruel than its rival, Islamic State, which has struggled to gain a foothold in a population repelled by its brutality. While AQAP has resorted to killing suspected “sorcerers,” and carried out stonings of at least one man and woman accused of adultery, residents and the group’s online media suggest such incidents are rare.
And even when AQAP publicises punishments, their videos and photographs never show the level of gratuitous gore that Islamic State revels in. Rather than resorting to mass beheadings, AQAP has detained or put under house arrest several dozen army officers and other figures they see as a threat.
AQAP will become a more resilient threat, much like al Shabaab in nearby Somalia.