Ansar al-Sharia and Governance in Southern Yemen

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Current Trends, December 27th 2012

Yemen is one of the most impoverished nations in the Middle East. It has also emerged as the most important front of the U.S.-led war against al-Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliates. Given that the Yemeni state’s inability to provide basic provisions and services is a key driver behind AQ’s growth, these two issues have become inextricably linked.

A war for territory between the Yemeni government and AQ’s Yemeni franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has escalated since the start of the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Throughout the upheaval, the AQAP made significant territorial gains, especially in the Abyan and Shabwa provinces. In March 2011, al-Qaeda’s insurgent wing Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) took control of the southern town of Ja’ar in Abyan. While the town’s fall to AQAP was significant, it was not a complete surprise.  AQAP already had a strong base there; Ja’ar supplied the Afghan mujahideen with fighters in the 1980s, and remnants of the Aden Abyan Islamic Army already lived in the city. Two months later, AQAP took control of Zinjibar, Abyan’s capital. Shaqwa, in Shabwa province, was then captured in August 2011. The towns were subsequently declared Islamic “emirates.” Meanwhile, AQAP’s leadership remained entrenched in the mountainous territory of Azzan in Shabwa.

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