Mukalla: Life after al-Qaeda in Yemen

One Week in Yemen: In the second part of a series, Bel Trew meets the civilians trying to piece their lives back together in the former al-Qaeda stronghold of Mukalla

Bel Trew
Friday 17 August 2018 19:16 BST
Mukalla: Life in a Yemeni town after occupation by Al-Qaeda

The Yemeni doctor first learned her husband had been kidnapped by al-Qaeda when its heavily armed militants stormed her house in Mukalla, while she was home alone with their two-month-old baby.

The masked fighters, who were wielding machine guns, attacked Dr Fatma (not her real name), locked her in the kitchen and ransacked the building.

“They told me they had taken my husband and brother. They robbed the house and took everything. They sealed my front door. I was only able to get out when my family came to rescue me,” she told The Independent from the hospital where she now works.

“From that day on I have not heard my husband’s voice or seen him at all. I’ve heard nothing for three years.”

Her husband and brother, whose names The Independent have withheld for their safety, were reporters for a local network.

They had covered a rare demonstration in Mukalla against al-Qaeda’s rule, during the autumn of 2015. The militants, who were concerned about losing support, did not want news of the rallies to spread.

Despite the obvious dangers of speaking out, Fatma decided not to stay quiet. She issued a statement via social media about the kidnapping and complained about how she was attacked.

Twelve days later, in an extraordinary act of bravery, she even staged a protest outside al-Qaeda’s main headquarters in the city, where militants opened fire. They threatened to kill her elderly father and sent masked men repeatedly to her home to keep her quiet.

Fearing for the safety of her loved ones, she eventually announced she had left the province. She quit her job and went underground.

By this time, October 2015, around 1,000 battle-hardened fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group’s most lethal franchises, had been in control of Mukalla for half a year.

Back in the spring of 2015, the terror group had conquered swathes of territory, exploiting a security breakdown in the war which erupted when the Shia Houthi rebel group ousted Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened to reinstate the recognised Yemeni government. Three years on, the conflict with the Houthis is still raging and at least 10,000 people have been killed.

Seizing Mukalla, a city of 300,000, was a major feat for the global terror group. From the strategic provincial capital, they ruled a mini-state which stretched for 700km from near the border with Oman into a western district of Aden.

AQAP held Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth biggest city, for a whole year, until April 2016, when a 10,000-strong force of Yemeni soldiers, trained and managed by the UAE, took back the city. The Emiratis maintain a significant presence in the strategic port city.

Two years after their retreat, and in the middle of a devastating and drawn out war, the city is trying to put itself back together again.

Dr Fatma is back at work, manning a crucial women’s and children’s health clinic in the city, which would not have been possible under al-Qaeda. Her brother was freed when AQAP fled the city, but her husband’s location is still unknown.

“Every day I wait for news, maybe they took him with them to the countryside when they fled the city,” she added.

According to the UAE army, AQAP militants are now present in a string of villages around Marib, in the centre of Yemen, Bayda just south of it and Wadi Hadramawt north of Mukalla.

But there are sleeper cells within the city and so no one takes any chances.

UAE soldiers travel around in nine-vehicle armoured convoys. Heavily-armed Yemeni soldiers clear streets when Yemeni officials move.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which the United Nations says has around 7,000 fighters, is not an easily distinguishable entity. Its members are often part of or have married into powerful tribes and militias. When they first entered Mukalla, they formed a council with local leaders, and were careful to tout their image as a powerful Sunni bulwark against the encroaching Shia Houthi threat.

Many of AQAP’s leaders hail from Hadramawt, the province in which Mukalla lies, and so the group even rebranded themselves the “Sons of Hadramawt” to curry local favour. During their one year in power the group boasted about providing residents with basic services, such as drinking water, electricity, and fuel.

Today, checkpoints manned by Emirati-trained brigades litter Mukalla. Bombed out buildings from the conflict sporadically scar the city. Signs demanding people hand over their weapons ring the outskirts of the city. It is noticeable that no one is visibly armed, which can be common in other parts of Yemen.

I have not heard my husband’s voice or seen him at all. I’ve heard nothing for three years

Dr Fatma, wife of an al-Qaeda kidnapping victim

Major-General Faraj Al-Bahsani, governor of the region, said that they were now working on a busy schedule of rebuilding health and education services, new homes and even a local police force.

“We don’t have much of a budget from the state because of the conflict, but we have started oil production, the ports are working, while access to electricity here in Hadramawt is the best in Yemen,” he said proudly from his offices in the city.

The city, he added, went through a lot.

The first thing the militants did upon taking Mukalla in April 2015 was to “empty the jails”, he claimed.

“Then they went to the banks and took all the money. Hadramawt is a big state, the money stored in Mukalla came from five different provinces. They took it all,” he said.

AQAP furnished their war coffers with an estimated $100m from looting Mukalla’s banks and collecting revenue from the city’s port. A recent report by Associated Press claimed the militants were permitted to leave the city with much of that loot in controversial deals with the Yemeni and Emirati forces when they took over. The UAE has denied the accusations, claiming 500 militants were killed in the battle for the city.

Dr Fatma described the year under their leadership as “hell on earth”. She said opposition figures or members of security forces were slaughtered “like sheep” in public, people were extorted under the guise of “taxes” and graves of religious figures deemed “infidels” were destroyed.

We don’t have much of a budget but we have started oil production, the ports are working, while access to electricity here is the best in Yemen

Major-General Faraj Al-Bahsani, governor of Hadramawt

Women, however, suffered the most.

“I remember a woman, accused of adultery, who was buried in the ground with only her head above. They kept throwing big rocks at her until they smashed her head and she died. We were not permitted to leave the house, they were strict about dress, ” she told The Independent.

“Even children changed their behaviour. Their street games were playing wars and dressing as the terrorists,” she added.

Near Dr Fatma’s workplace, another prominent female resident who was threatened by al-Qaeda spoke about having to go underground during the terror group’s year-long rule.

Afrah Jumaakhan, who before the takeover was a radio presenter, is now Yemen’s first female director of a radio station.

“They used to send people to my house to threaten me. They burnt down our radio building, but we have rebuilt it here, in this former children’s book shop,” she said.

UAE-trained cadets of the Yemeni police marching during their graduation in the southeastern port city of Mukalla

Ahmed, not his real name, is a young journalist, kidnapped by al-Qaeda in early 2016 just months before the militants lost the city.

He told The Independent he was not only investigated and tortured in detention but so was everyone who came to visit him.

“At that time, it was impossible for a man and a woman to cross the street alone without being questioned. All government bodies were closed. Many suffered to feed their families and so even joined AQAP due to a lack of jobs just to get the pay check,” he said.

He was only freed after he vowed not to report again.

“After my release, I rarely left the house and only stayed in close proximity. Psychologically and mentally, I was broken,” he added.

And while the city still appears much destroyed, there are positive signs. At the city’s port, officials say for the first time since al-Qaeda swept control, it has started exporting goods – specifically fish.

Salem Ali Basamer, the port’s chief, said 300 wooden ships now dock a year, double the number in 2016, while the number of commercial and fuel ships has tripled.

He claimed the port had even secured a security certificate from the International Maritime Organisation.

The port is open again for business, with fish being exported

Under al-Qaeda, the port was used as a lucrative source of funds for the group. Basamer estimated the militants were able to make some $700,000 from the port during their year in power.

But a lot has changed since then, he claimed.

“Europe thinks this place isn’t secure yet but we have the IMO certificate,” he told The Independent.

“We want to change their view of Mukalla. It is a stable city. We are ready to participate in international business in Europe. We have only seen two European vessels in two years, the only ships that come are Saudi, Emirati and Indian. We need that to change,” he added.

One of the biggest projects under way at the moment is a new police force. There was a lot of criticism of the Yemeni security forces that manned Mukalla before al-Qaeda took over, amid accusations that the city was effectively handed over to the militants without a fight.

Earlier this year the Emiratis, who have built significant military infrastructure here and so have massive influence over the city, flew in their own interior ministry officials to train up new recruits – and they say this will stop any capitulation happening again.

The first batch of graduates – 224 young men – completed the six-week training last week. The Emiratis have shipped in nearly 160 police wagons, four fire trucks and 60 motorbikes for the province. They hope the police force will eventually take over manning checkpoints and security of the city, freeing up the military forces.

On the sidelines of the graduation ceremony, attending Emirati officials said that with the new police force, they even plan to reopen Mukalla international airport.

One young officer, Lieutenant al-Moody, 28, told The Independent he signed up because his best friend was murdered by al-Qaeda for being part of the resistance in Mukalla.

“I’m proud to be in this force. It is my responsibility to restore peace to Hadramawt, I’m doing this job because of my friends, my family and my freedom,” he added.

Back at the women’s clinic, Dr Fatma distracts herself from missing her husband by planning a new wing of the hospital for severe malnutrition cases.

“I thank God for those who gave us the security and safety after Mukalla was liberated,” she said after a long shift in the hospital.

“It gives us hope.”

Read the first piece in Bel Trew’s series, One Week in Yemen, here: Inside the UAE’s war on al-Qaeda in Yemen

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