Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants are taking control of key cities in Abyan governorate, reconstituting its presence in the area and potentially staging to threaten the Saudi-led coalition’s recent efforts to re-establish the Yemeni government under President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden.
AQAP is replicating its proxy style of governance from Hadramawt to Abyan. AQAP militants temporarily seized Jaar, the city that had served as the capital of AQAP's "Emirate of Waqar" in 2011-2012, on December 2. The group rapidly established a domestic council as a proxy administration, mirroring AQAP's April 2015 takeover of al Mukalla, Hadramawt. Militants also raided the house of Abdul Latif al Sayyed, a key commander of Abyan’s Popular Committees who helped drive AQAP from Abyan in 2012, on December 2014. Ansar al Sharia, AQAP’s militant arm, placed a seven million riyal bounty on Abdul Latif on December 4. AQAP also claimed to have killed Ali al Sayyed, deputy commander of the Popular Committees, on December 2. The group is reestablishing itself as an authority in Abyan governorate and maintains a significant presence in Zinjibar, Abyan’s regional capital. AQAP Field Commander Jamal Bal’idi al Marqishi, also known as Abu Zinjibari from his time commanding AQAP in Abyan in 2011, survived a reported airstrike in Jaar on December 4, indicating that AQAP senior leadership is active in the area. AQAP's growing presence in Abyan extends a corridor of support from al Mukalla, Hadramawt, through Shabwah, to just east of Aden. The expansion may be an indicator that AQAP is positioning itself to directly contest control of Aden, where the Saudi-led government is bolstering the Hadi-led government. (Sources available upon request)
AQAP and the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) are vying for influence in Hadramawt governorate in eastern Yemen. ISIS militants executed two tribesmen in Sayun, Hadramawt on December 3. The executions continue two weeks of increased ISIS activity in Hadramawt, traditionally an AQAP stronghold. AQAP’s al Malahem Media Foundation announced the upcoming release of a documentary entitled “Guardians of Shari’ah,” likely an effort to reinforce AQAP’s credentials as the dominant jihadist organization in Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition is attempting to secure Aden and build the legitimacy of Hadi’s government. The coalition announced plans to integrate 12,000 popular resistance fighters into a pro-Hadi Yemeni army in Aden, reflecting its efforts to bolster President Hadi’s government against both dissent from southern separatists and encroachment by AQAP as it gains strength in neighboring Abyan. The war in Yemen fractured its military forces, some of which are fighting under the al Houthi-Saleh alliance.
AQAP and ISIS have been able to expand as other armed groups in Yemen focus on the conflict between the al Houthi-Saleh alliance and opposing forces. The reconstitution of AQAP-led governance in Jaar shows the group's confidence in its capacity to hold the ground.
James Towey contributed research for this piece.