Al-Qaida’s wretched utopia and the battle for hearts and minds

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports: Driving east out of Aden, we were just a few hundred metres past the last army checkpoint when we saw the black al-Qaida flag. It flew from the top of a concrete building that had been part-demolished by shelling.

From here into the interior, all signs of control by the government of Yemen disappeared. This is the region of newly proclaimed jihadi emirates in south Yemen that are run by affiliates of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni franchise of the movement founded by Osama bin Laden.

AQAP has existed in this ragged, mountainous terrain for years, but in the last 12 months the jihadis have moved down from the high ground to take control of cities in the lowlands. They are in the process of setting up an al-Qaida utopia here, where security is provided by jihadis, justice follows sharia law and even the administration of electricity and water supplies is governed by the emir.

Azzan, a market town in Shabwa province a year ago, is one of the three proclaimed Islamic emirates in south Yemen. When the Guardian approached it, the town entrance was defended by more than a dozen fighters equipped with armoured vehicles that had been commandeered from the government. We were met by three young jihadis and taken to the spot where the 17-year-old son of AQAP’s spiritual leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed, presumably by an American drone. Awlaki himself was killed in a separate strike last year.

At a small store on the side of the road, young men sat at computers copying the sermons of Awlaki, the al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and other household names of the global jihad. A poster on the wall advertised a film called The Survivors, featuring accounts of leaders who had survived drone strikes.

The city’s old police station has been converted into a sharia court. Inside, in a room whose walls were hung with the symbols of the jihadi court – a black flag, a kalashnikov and a long stick used for delivering corporal punishment – sat the judge. He opened a small notebook as a demonstration of how the al-Qaida justice system had resolved 42 cases in a fortnight.

“People come to us from parts we don’t control and ask us to solve their problems,” he said. “The sharia justice system is swift and incorruptible. Most of the cases we solve within the day.”

Had they had cut off any hands in dispensing justice?

“Cutting the hand of the thief is not to punish the thief, it is to deter the rest of society,” he said.

Driving out of Azzan to the west for 100 miles we came to the centre of another Islamic emirate, at Jaar. Jihadi fighters met us with their newly commandeered armoured vehicle, freshly painted with their insignia and furnished with the black flag.

We threaded a way through the crowded market, past stalls of vegetables and live chickens, as gunmen on motorbikes patrolled the dusty potholed streets. Many of the town’s buildings appeared to have been reduced to concrete rubble by air strikes.

In this wretched place, AQAP and their affiliates are attempting to build a new society. Unlike in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, in Yemen they are trying to implement sharia by winning over the hearts and minds of the people. [Continue reading…]

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