In Yemen's South, Islamists Gain Ground

Aug 13, 2011
Originally published on August 14, 2011 12:04 am

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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JACKI LYDEN, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jackie Lyden. In Yemen, Islamist fighters who are said to be affiliated with al-Qaida are maintaining their grip on a small city in the southern part of the country after an attack forced some 90,000 people to flee their homes. Officials say months of anti-government protests and rising violence in Yemen have left the door open for such militant incursions. But local residents suspect something more sinister. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Yemen's southern city of Aden and sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS: The trouble in the city of Zinjibar started about two months ago. Militants stormed the town, captured government buildings and looted the central bank. Government forces responded by dropping bombs from planes. People fled their homes and ended up in schools in the larger city of Aden, nearby.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

MCEVERS: This is a classroom. You know, there's four ceiling fans and fluorescent lights and a big tile floor. And now there are beds and people's entire belongings piled up in the corner. There's a little tricycle, a little fan, some beds, a couple of kids.

Eyad Salem Adelkhalin says he and his three children had no choice but to flee his home.

EYAD SALEM ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He says the armed militants had long hair and long beards and spoke Arabic with accents from other countries. He says they were big and strong and wore military vests packed with bullets.

ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: They called themselves Ansar al Shariah, or Supporters of Islamic law. They said they wanted to rid the region of corruption. They offered to protect the people of Zinjibar.

ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: But the government airstrikes are because of you, Adelkhalin says he told the militants. You brought this trouble to our homes. Despite the bombings, the army made little progress against the militants. Adelkhalin says local tribesmen joined in to fight alongside the army. Then, a few weeks ago, a government airstrike killed more than a dozen tribesmen. Adelkhalin says it was no coincidence.

ADELKHALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Why would the government target the tribesmen, he says, unless they wanted to help the militants. This is what you hear from most people from Zinjibar these days, that the government is too preoccupied with staying in power to fight the militants, or to help the victims. In fact, some say the government might even be complicit in the militant movement.

Hadija Salem Embrik is an anti-government activist who helped people displaced from Zinjibar find shelter in Aden. (Foreign language spoken)

TRANSLATOR: The government did not do anything for the refugees. The youth movement organized itself, started to communicate with the businessmen and people from the private sector to help those refugees.

MCEVERS: Nearly everyone we met told stories of how the government has ignored them - how government troops stood down while the militants took over - and they now fear the militants are moving closer to the larger, port city of Aden.

Rumors are flying around the city that arms are flowing into the city. A suicide bomber recently killed a British citizen in the city. Activists take us to a neighborhood in the center of Aden where Islamists have used the language of the protest movement in graffiti that has shocked many people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The people want the rule of God.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ah, yeah.

MCEVERS: Uh-Huh. Gregory Johnsen is a Yemen expert at Princeton University. He says without the presence of journalists or aid workers in Zinjibar, it's difficult to know whether the government is complicit in the militant movement or not. Either way, he says the conspiracy theories ignore the real possibility of a wider militant takeover.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: I think it's a very worrying concern for not only people in Yemen who've been driven out of their homes, of course, for the United States and the Obama administration, which is very worried that any militants who are leaning to al-Qaida working there in Yemen might use any territory or any space they acquire to carry out more attacks against the West.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.