Saturday, August 13, 2011

In Yemen's South, Islamists Gain Ground

by Kelly McEvers

August 13, 2011

The growing turmoil in Yemen is on display in the southern city of Aden, where tens of thousands of people have sought shelter after fleeing a nearby town that has been taken over by Islamist fighters.

The trouble erupted less than an hour's drive east of Aden, in the town of Zinjibar, about two months ago. Militants rumored to be affiliated with al-Qaida stormed the town, captured government buildings and looted the central bank. Government forces responded with airstrikes.

This upheaval drove some 90,000 residents of Zinjibar out of their homes, and some have now ended up camping out in schools in the larger city of Aden. They now live in a classroom, where beds have been set up and blankets donated by international aid organizations are piled on the floors. Eyad Salem Adelkhalin is one of these internally displaced persons. He says he and his three children had no choice but to flee from Zinjibar.

Militants Were From Abroad

Adelkhalin says the armed militants who stormed Zinjibar had long hair and long beards and spoke Arabic with an accent from other countries. He says they were big and strong and wore military vests packed with bullets.

The militants called themselves ansar al shariah, or "supporters of Islamic law," Adelkhalin says. They said they wanted to rid the region of corruption and offered to protect the people of Zinjibar.

Adelkhalin says he told the militants they had brought the trouble to the town, including the government airstrikes.

Despite the air attacks, Yemen's army has made little progress against the militants. Adelkhalin says local tribesmen joined in to fight alongside the army. Then, a few weeks ago, one of the government bombing raids killed more than a dozen tribesmen.

Adelkhalin said he saw it as something intentional, not an accident.

"Why would the government target the tribesmen unless they wanted to help the militants?" he said.

Conspiracy Theories Abound

Many people from Zinjibar said the same thing. They believe the government is too preoccupied with staying in power to fight the militants, or to help the civilian victims. In fact, some claim the government might even be complicit with the militants.

Hadija Salem Embrik, an anti-government activist, has helped people displaced from Zinjibar find shelter in Aden.

"The government did not do anything for the refugees," Embrik said. "The youth movement organized itself; it started to communicate with the businessmen and people from the private sector to help those refugees."

Many told stories of how they felt ignored by the government. They said government troops stood down while the militants took over, and civilians now fear the militants are moving closer to Aden. Rumors are circulating that arms are flowing into the city.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, says that without journalists or aid workers in Zinjibar, it's difficult to know whether the government is complicit in the militant movement. Either way, he says, the conspiracy theories ignore the real possibility of a wider militant takeover.

"I think it's a very worrying concern for not only people in Yemen who've been driven out of their homes, but of course for the United States and the Obama administration," Johnsen said. The U.S., he noted, is concerned that militants might help al-Qaida maintain a foothold in Yemen and use it as a base to carry out attacks against the West.

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