SANAA, Yemen, (AP) – Islamic radicals have long held sway in the southern Yemeni town of Jaar. They turned it into a Taliban-style microstate, where the movie theater was converted into a mosque, men and women are banned from mingling in public and drinking alcohol is punishable by 100 lashes.
In recent weeks, they consolidated their authority in Jaar. As Yemen was thrown into turmoil by protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, armed Islamic radicals pushed out the military units based in the mountain town of 50,000 people and took over without a shot, seizing a neighboring town as well.
The situation in Jaar offers a worst case scenario of what could happen if Saleh’s rule crumbles: Islamic militants will become bolder and move to take advantage of the vacuum of power in the Arab world’s poorest country.
The biggest worry is over al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which the Obama administration considers the top terrorist threat to the U.S. Washington has given Saleh millions of dollars to fight the terror group, which is believed to have several hundred fighters holed up in mountain hideouts. The Obama administration fears that cooperation would be jeopardized if the longtime leader is ousted, although it has denounced the regime’s violent crackdown against demonstrators.
“It seems that al-Qaeda will at the very least be able to take advantage of any anarchy that results from the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh,” said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence firm.
“If he’s relieved what will replace him? Will it be effective enough to at least hold the line and not allow militants like al-Qaeda to expand? The answer to that question is not clear,” he added.
The government already has diverted forces to the capital, Sanaa, and other urban areas as it fights to stay in power, further reducing his regime’s weakening hold on large parts of the country.
Some Yemeni analysts say that the country’s powerful tribal leaders — who have increasingly turned against the government — will likely oppose any gains by al-Qaida as a possible threat to their authority and financial networks.
“Yes, there will be a security vacuum and al-Qaeda will play a bigger role,” said Shaher Mohammed Said, a Yemeni writer with expertise in Islamic militant groups. “But Yemen will not be Somalia or Afghanistan because tribes — along with religious clerics who backed the ouster of Saleh — will manage to cut the fuel supply to al-Qaeda: the youth.”
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said “al-Qaeda is not going to take over.” But, he warned, “what is going to happen is that they have greater freedoms to plot and carry out operations and that’s what the concern is.”
Jaar illustrated that the situation is more complicated than just al-Qaeda. Yemen also has other militant groups that Saleh has cultivated for years and used as proxy forces to help solidify his hold on power. Thousands of Yemeni radicals fought in “jihads,” or “holy wars,” in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries from the 1980s to the early 2000s. After returning home, they largely severed ties with al-Qaeda but kept a hard-line Islamic radical ideology.
They also provided a useful force for Saleh against threats to his regime: He used their fighters to combat secessionists in the south and Shiite rebels in the north and as a pillar of support in other parts of the country.
That raises concern about what they will do if the man who has ruled Yemen for 32 years is deposed.
The Islamists who seized Jaar appear to be from among their ranks, former members of a group known as the Aden Army, who fought in Afghanistan against Soviet forces in the 1980s and returned to side with Saleh’s government to put down a 1994 civil war with the south. The militiamen demanded payback for their help and were given key positions within security forces or as civil servants.
That has led some critics to accuse Saleh of pulling out the army and letting them assume control in Jaar to stoke Western fears of an al-Qaeda takeover. In the eyes of many, Saleh is to blame for the rise of al-Qaeda because of his cultivation of militants. They say that as he struggles to hold power, the president appears to be hoping to keep Washington’s support by hyping fears that the terror network could turn its foothold into an outright base on the doorstep of the oil-rich Gulf countries if he goes.
Ali Dahmas, a Yemeni expert on Islamic groups, said that with Saleh’s allies abandoning him in the face of protests, he has little else but to hype terrorism fears. “He is waving al-Qaeda card again, but we all know that al-Qaeda is made by Saleh and his regime.”
The militants seized Jaar, a neighboring town and a local munitions factory late last month. More than 100 people were killed in an explosion apparently set off when the impoverished townspeople entered the factory in the aftermath to seize and looted anything of valued that remained, including cables, doors and vehicle fuel.
A leader of the Islamic radicals who assumed control of Jaar, about 160 miles (250 kilometers) southeast of Sanaa, said they had no connection to al-Qaeda or to Saleh, but the country’s disarray forced them to move.
“The state has fallen here. If we didn’t take over, others will take over,” Khaled Abdel-Nabi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
On a possible post-Saleh state, he said: “We have tried secular rule and we have tried Socialist rule. Now we need to try Islamic rule because we have no hope but through the Quran and the (Prophet’s teachings.)”
A government security official said that the military unit in Jaar has not fired a single bullet and opened up their base to the Islamists after negotiations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.
The Yemeni terror network — known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — has played no obvious role in the rebellion that broke out in February and has left about 120 people dead.
But it has used areas of Yemen already out of state control to launch attacks, including sending a suicide bomber who tried to down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with a bomb sewn into his underwear. The device failed to detonate properly.
In an essay for al-Qaeda’s online magazine last month, the U.S.-born radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki welcomed the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and said that such will create opportunities for al-Qaeda to operate more freely.
Whatever the outcome of the revolts, “our mujahedeen brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya … will get a chance to breathe again after three decades of suffocation,” al-Awlaki wrote.