Al-Qaida Takes To The Hills Of Yemen’s Badlands

Yemen’s offensive against al-Qaida has focused on territory in the south of the country that the militants have held for nearly a year. With the backing of the U.S., Yemen’s army has cleared al-Qaida and its allies. But many local residents believe the fight is far from over. Kelly McEvers spent several days in southern Yemen and filed this report.

We’re in a Yemeni army land cruiser with a shattered windshield. Our destination is the town of Shaqra, the last town in the al-Qaida badlands before the sandy ground turns into mountains.

Until last week, it was the final town in southern Yemen’s Abyan province that was held by al-Qaida and its local partner, Ansar al-Sharia.

The Yemeni soldiers are taking us to where their final battles with the al-Qaida militants happened the day before. Yemeni state TV has been taking great pains to paint this offensive as a victory.

But when we get to Shaqra, it’s a slightly different story.

Shaqra looks like a normal town: no real heavy military presence, people out in the streets, no evidence of bullets or artillery, no soldiers holding territory. It doesn’t look like there was much of a fight.

Everything Not As It Appears

But the soldier who’s driving us is afraid to even turn off the main street. He says that most of the people here are “dogs” who are with al-Qaida; he is afraid that if we turn off the main road, they will shoot at our military car.

In other words, it does not seem as if the military actually controls the area.

This seems to confirm what al-Qaida has been saying. It claims it has not been defeated in these towns, but rather its leaders mounted a tactical retreat, back to the mountains.

We pull up to a shop in search of water. People crowd around our truck while the soldiers are inside. I’m warned to turn off the tape recorder, but I turn it on again once we’re back on the bumpy road.

“You should come and take a picture of the houses. Children were killed, people were killed,” one Yemeni civilian says.

I look at a soldier and ask, “Like a bomb coming from the air?” He says yes.

The soldiers won’t take us to the site of the bombing. But we later confirm that there was an airstrike in Shaqra that killed six children and one woman the day before we visited. It’s still not clear whether the Yemeni air force launched the strike, or whether it came from a U.S. military or CIA drone.

Strong Anti-Government Sentiment

All of these weapons are being employed in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen right now. And it certainly complicates the picture in Shaqra and other towns in the area.

Residents say it has increased their anger toward the governments of both Yemen and the U.S.

This is worrisome in Yemen’s south, which was an independent country until 1994. In the past year, some people have been pushing for independence again.

As we drive by southern tribesmen who worked with Yemeni soldiers to rout al-Qaida, they flash the “V” sign — not, residents say, because they’re claiming victory over al-Qaida, but to show how they still hope to claim victory over the central government.

Many of these tribesmen are now manning checkpoints. We find a group of them holding a post office they say al-Qaida militants trashed.

The men say they are volunteers and that so far the government only gives them food and a few bullets. They say they hope the government army will give them jobs someday.

The men say there is a “promise” the government will put them in the army. If that doesn’t happen? Easy, the men say. We’ll get rid of them.

As we leave the al-Qaida badlands behind, a Yemeni colleague plays a song that’s big these days.

“O leaders where are you?” the song goes. “Where is our dignity and honor?”

Then the singer issues a kind of threat to the Yemeni government. When the volcano explodes, he says, it will burn.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.