Dozens of al Qaeda militants reclaimed the town of Azzan in Yemen’s Shabwa province on Monday, residents said, exploiting a security vacuum in the country’s south as a civil war rages, Reuters reported.
Azzan is a major commercial center for about 70,000 people in a parched and mountainous region. It was controlled by al Qaeda for around a year until the group got cast out in 2012, by an alliance of tribesmen and armed residents loyal to Yemen since central government.
“Dozens of al Qaeda gunmen arrived in the early hours of the morning and set up checkpoints at the entrances to the town and in its streets. They planted their black flag on government buildings,” one resident who declined to be named told Reuters by telephone.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took advantage of Yemen’s civil war to expand, which set off a military intervention by a Gulf Arab coalition last March, and also controls the major port of Mukalla in a neighboring province.
Sunni Muslim AQAP is viewed by Western analysts as the most dangerous arm of the global militant organization. It claims responsibility for the deadly January 2015 attack in Paris on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
It has made its advances in Yemen as the Saudi-led coalition forces, which back the ousted government, clashed with the Houthi movement, a proxy for Iran.
AQAP has suffered setbacks, losing its leader and several top officials to U.S. drone strikes, and is also facing competition from the new Yemen branch of the ultra-violent ISIS.