After al-Qaeda: No signs of recovery in Yemen's Mukalla

After al-Qaeda: No signs of recovery in Yemen's Mukalla
From Al Jazeera - January 11, 2018

Burned-out cars, rusted bullet casings and debris from levelled buildings line the narrow, winding streets of Mukalla, a jarring reminder of the intense fighting that ravaged the seaport nearly three years ago.

In a blitzkrieg similar to when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) surged across Syria and Iraq, hundreds of fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) overran Yemen's coastal city of Mukalla in April 2015, exploiting chaos unleashed by the Saudi-led coalition's war with Houthi rebels in the north.

The ensuing turmoil, which has killed and wounded more than 60,000 people since March 2015, presented AQAP with an opportunity to make huge territorial gains, thanks partly to the acerbic, sectarian tone espoused by the coalition.

The Houthis, a group of rebels who emerged from Yemen's northern highlands where Zaidi Shia Muslims are concentrated, allied with troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in early 2015, capturing large expanses of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.

Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states intervened in the conflict in March of that year, launching a massive aerial campaign to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's internationally recognised government which was forced into exile.

Air strikes decimated areas held by the Houthis, dislodging them from most of the south. However, until today, the rebels control a section of land larger than England, ruling a population of around 18 million people.

AQAP exploited this chaotic milieu to attack Mukalla on April 2, 2015, a city of more than 300,000 people, pounding military installations with mortars and RPGs they had seized in previous battles.

The Yemeni military spectacularly crumbled.

Troops were unable to repel AQAP's advance and dumped their weapons and even their uniforms, fleeing through arid valleys and deserts to government-controlled areas to the west of Hadramout province.

With military bases left undefended, AQAP came to acquire some of the world's most fearsome weapons - seizing tanks, American-made Humvee vehicles and copious heavy weaponry as spoils of war.

But mighty war machines were not the only things AQAP got their hands on. The group also looted around $100m from local banks, and would later use these funds to launch a cynical public relations campaign to shore up support for their so-called Islamic Emirate.

Raking in around $2m a day by extorting national companies and taxing goods coming into the lucrative port, AQAP used its growing economic power to provide residents with drinking water, electricity, healthcare and other basic services.

The group abolished taxes on local residents, paid civil servants their salaries on time and went about making slick propaganda videos in which they boasted about their state-building project as a "liberation" movement.

But exactly a year later, they gave it all up, in a sudden, bloodless withdrawal.

Yemeni soldiers, backed by Emirati special forces, entered the city on April 24, 2016 after AQAP withdrew, following secret negotiations, to the rugged mountains of Shabwa, al-Bayda and Marib provinces.

The group, which has long boasted about preparing its soldiers for "martyrdom", said it fled to protect civilians from advancing forces.

Only a handful of its fighters remained, blending into the local population.

Now, nearly two years on, residents have told Al Jazeera that the Yemeni government and their Emirati handlers failed to provide them with the most basic of services, withtheir lives having been "better" under the armed group.

Life under AQAP

"Al-Qaeda paved roads, built hospitals. It was far from perfect, but they were better than the current administration," said Abdur Rahman Khaled, a 30-year-old fisherman from Mukalla's Khalaf district.

"When they set up their administrative council, it was headed by prominent tribal elders who did not ascribe to their ideology. So they were not this group of power-hungry jihadists that the media portrays.

"They were forced to fill a void left by the cowardly army and government when they fled," Khaled said.

In a view echoed by several other residents, Khaled added: "Life was better under al-Qaeda, compared with now. Now it's just a mess."

Many of AQAP's leaders hailed from established Hadrami families, and the group even rebranded themselves as the "Sons of Hadramout" to sidestep local and international stigma.

Despite employing a deadly campaign of suicide bombings against state authorities since the late 1990s, AQAP in Mukalla was "less cruel" than the image touted in the media, Khaled said.

"While they resorted to the stoning of at least one man and woman accused of adultery, as well as the crucifixions of two men suspected of being Saudi spies, such incidents were rare."

Glimpses of life under AQAP are still evident on the streets, Khaled added, with the groups' slogans still hanging on buildings and graffitied on walls.

Under AQAP,Hisbah(religious police) walked the city's streets, supervising the implementation of their interpretation of the Shariah, where free-mixing between the sexes was forbidden and music was banned.

"Women of faith: Protect your pure bodies from prying eyes," one poster hanging at a busy junction reads.

Sewage and debris-caked roads

Charred buildings and crumpled cars are also a frequent sight, but with electricity still not fully restored after a coalition air strike flattened a power plant in 2016, most of the city is shrouded in darkness at night.

Residents complained to Al Jazeera of the nauseating stench of sewage fermenting in the hot climate, saying it could be smelled from "hundreds of metres away".

"The city is drowning in sewage and darkness," Afkar Alshanbati, a local resident and human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

Water treatment and distribution facilities are constantly disrupted by power shortages, she said, with the government always avoiding blame with "lame excuses.

"The situation is unacceptable and reflects the ignominious failure of the local authority," Alshanbati said.

"Mukalla was liberated nearly two years ago, yet nothing has been done to repair buildings."

Fingers have been pointed at both AQAP and the Saudi-led coalition for the devastation, but, wherever the blame lies, entire areas are unlikely to be repaired anytime soon, she said.

"We understand that there is a war, but the government should pay employees their salaries, especially in 'liberated' areas. But it's one excuse after the next, under the pretext of the war," Alshanbati added.

Absent government

'Life of misery'


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