Overlooking the province of Abyan: Lawder, Ja’ar, Zinjibar, Shaqra and all the way to the Arabian Sea.
The ‘frontline of the war on terror’ looks innocuous from here. Perched on the 1,000 meter-high ledge it’s hard to comprehend how this patch of land that stretches just 35 miles to the Arabian Sea is responsible for generating such fear and loathing in Washington.
It’s easy to imagine this place at the edge of the ancient incense trail as hundreds of camels carried frankincense from India to the Mediterranean. It’s just as you start to romanticise about this beautiful country and the wonderful people that the reality hits. Whether it’s a bomb blast like the one that killed 96 people last week, or the phone call we received an hour later whilst driving through Abyan, relaying information that the road ahead in a steep-sided valley was being held by al-Qaeda, prompting our minders to load their rocket propelled grenades, wistful thinking goes out of the window rather rapidly here.
Veracity is something easily lost in Yemen and nowhere more so than in Abyan.
It just doesn’t add up
Since this latest offensive against Ansar al-Sharia, which began nearly three weeks ago, we’ve all been relying on government and military officials for casualty figures. Everyday new military advances are relayed and deaths reported: 22 militants here, six soldiers there.
“At least 353 people have been killed, according to a tally compiled by AFP, including 259 al-Qaeda fighters, 58 military personnel, 18 local militiamen and 18 civilians.” (May 30)
From speaking to civilian casualties, injured soldiers, hospital doctors, resistance fighters in Lawder and the governor of Abyan, I can tell you these figures are far, far removed from the reality on the ground.
In Lawder alone 93 fighters and soldiers died battling for the town (a figure given by a commander of the people’s committee of resistance fighters and backed up by Abyan’s governor Jamal Nasser al-Aqel).
One civilian casualty of a double air (possible drone) strike on May 15 in Ja’ar told me a day after the attack that 26 people – all civilians - were killed. Official figures on the day put civilian deaths at eight.
If I took these official numbers with a large pinch of salt before, I now know they’re absolutely worthless. All I can be sure of is many more people are dying than we know of, or are being told about.
Less anticipated was the strong secessionist presence and sentiment in the south beyond Aden.
Anti-government protests last year changed the face of Aden. The town was festooned with southern flags. From the mountain side of Crater to almost every wall, advertising billboard and car dashboard the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen became ubiquitous.
On a more than five-hour drive through the south the feeling of being in another country grows. Southern Movement checkpoints dot the roads, outnumbering the government-controlled barricades. Switching back and forth between the old southern and Yemen national flag protruding from old rusting oil drums it’s hard to tell who controls what and that’s before you get to the black flags of Ansar al-Sharia. At night some roads change hands for 12 hours or so as Ansar al-Sharia set up roadblocks before vanishing after sunrise.
Lawder as a blueprint
Southerner’s feelings towards the military are palpable in Abyan. From light-hearted jeering from the resident militias at their military counterparts, to subtle attempts to prevent us showing government troops in a good light, the underlying tension between the two recent allies is ever present.
The resistance fighters of Lawder, backed by leading Southern Movement figure Mohammed Ali Ahmed (a native of the town), in turn supported by President Hadi, are the first signs of southerners becoming militarily organised – admittedly very loosely - since being defeated in the 1994 civil war.
There’s much talk of Lawder and its resistance force being the ‘blue print’ for the fight against Ansar al-Sharia and as a long-term solution to keep al-Qaeda out of southern towns.
Certainly the local fighters appear to have been crucial in the battle to oust the insurgents from Lawder. They took nearly twice as many casualties as the soldiers.
What also appears glaringly obvious on the ground is the long-term consequences of expanding this model across the south.
The men of Lawder and the surrounding villages are revelling in their victory and now consider themselves a credible fighting force. A force who’ve defeated one enemy and is now bullish enough, should they wish to, to take on (note: I don’t say defeat) another: their northern suppressors, as they see them.
The call for arming and supporting the south in the fight against al-Qaeda is widespread. From Yemen’s government to Western diplomats, they’re all pressing to get the southern tribes involved. But have they overlooked, or are they just choosing to ignore, the long-term impact of such a strategy? Perhaps those in the higher echelons understand and accept the risk of building this rag-tag force that may eventually turn on its creators. Those I’ve spoken to so far about this are in denial and refuse to see it as an issue.
I should stress that Mohammed Ali Ahmed expressed to me his ultimate desire for separatism, with federalism as the catalyst, but he says he’ll pursue these changes through political channels, not by force or the creation of a southern army.
But if this tribal army expands, what happens next is likely to be beyond his or any other individual’s control. Encouraging and arming men to fight is the simple part. Choosing their enemies for them is likely to be rather more problematic.
Travelling from Sana’a to the Tihama, Abyan to Hajjah, the one thing every Yemeni (and one grumbling foreign journalist) has repeatedly demanded is water and electricity. These two most basic services are severely lacking across most of the country, something Ansar al-Sharia benefited from as they set out to provide electricity, water and food for residents in towns across Abyan, where out-governing the state isn’t a tough challenge.
In Lawder the local power station was destroyed in the fighting. When asked what they’d do for electricity one of the commanders gave me a knowing look and smirked: “we wait for the government?”
As most of the country continues to ‘wait’ for regular electricity he and I joked about how ‘the men down the road’ [Ansar al-Sharia] could solve the problem, probably in a matter of days. But really this is no joke.
If Lawder is going to be held up as a shinning example of how to crush the insurgency then the state has to step in immediately and provide or renew basic services in order to convince people government rule is the better option. At the moment for many people across Yemen it’s not.
See all reports from Abyan trip