While all eyes are on the conflict between Houthis and pro-Hadi forces in Yemen, Ansar al Sharia (al-Qaeda in Yemen) has gradually captured more and more territory along the southern Yemeni coast.
The port city of al-Mukalla, home to approximately 500.000 residents, now works as the de facto Yemeni capital for Ansar al-Sharia. Inside it, local workers are paid wages, taxes are abolished and al-Qaeda miliatants operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic.
In total, an estimated 1.000 Ansar al-Sharia militants have set up camp in al-Mukalla which has largely avoided Saudi airstrikes or US-led drone attacks as both seem more focused on defeating the Houthi insurgency which not long ago led to the capture of the country’s official capital, Sana’a.
Largely due to ongoing conflict in Yemen between the Houthi tribesmen and Saudi-backed forces, Ansar al-Sharia has grown stronger than any time during its 20-year history, thus rather discretely snatching lands from both parties.
Currently, Ansar al-Sharia is attempting to win the hearts and minds of Yemeni civilians all along the southern Yemeni coast, thereby offering free healthcare and other vital state-like institutions to local residents while raiding simultaneously their military opponents and enjoying the subsequent war booty.
In total, this Yemeni al-Qaeda group controls some 600 km of coastline and about 20% of Yemen’s total territory. Meanwhile, an estimated 6,000 people, half of them civilians, have been killed.
A temporary ceasefire between the Aden-based government, which is backed by the Saudis, and the Sana’a based-government, which is backed by the Iranians, began on April the 10th.
In a recent statement issued by the Saudi embassy in Washington, Saudi officials said that their campaign had “denied terrorists a safe haven in Yemen.”
And yet, Ansar al-Sharia is stronger than ever before and still expanding its territory.