June 13, 2011


[The government has not allowed journalists to visit Zinjibar. This article is based on more than a dozen interviews with provincial officials, government employees and tribal leaders from Abyan, as well as Yemeni and U.S. officials, and telephone interviews with residents of Zinjibar and surrounding areas.]

SANAA, Yemen — Islamist extremists, many suspected of links to al-Qaeda, are engaged in an intensifying struggle against government forces for control of southern Yemen, taking advantage of a growing power vacuum to create a stronghold near vital oil-shipping lanes, said residents and Yemeni and U.S. officials.

Over the past few weeks, the militants have swiftly taken over two towns, including Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, and surrounding areas and appear to be pushing farther south, said Yemeni security officials and residents. Increasingly, it appears as if al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate is seeking for the first time to grab and hold large swaths of territory, adding a dangerous dimension to Yemen’s crisis.

U.S. and Yemeni officials worry that a loss of government control in the south could further destabilize this strategic Middle Eastern nation, already gripped by political paralysis, violent conflicts and fears of collapse.

The government has not allowed journalists to visit Zinjibar. This article is based on more than a dozen interviews with provincial officials, government employees and tribal leaders from Abyan, as well as Yemeni and U.S. officials, and telephone interviews with residents of Zinjibar and surrounding areas.

They describe a ghost town where streets are a canvas of destruction, struck by daily shelling, air assaults and gunfire. There’s no electricity, water or other services. Tens of thousands, mostly women and children, have fled the city. Men have stayed back only to protect their homes. The extremists man checkpoints, and any semblance of authority or governance has vanished.

“They want to create an Islamic emirate,” said Mohammed al-Shuhairi, 50, a journalist in al-Kowd, near Zinjibar. “I have lived through wars here in 1978, 1986 and 1994. But I have never seen anything as bad as this.”

The Islamist extremists are mostly from various Yemeni provinces but also include other Arabs and foreign fighters. They call themselves Ansar al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law, residents said.

In an April 18 interview on jihadist Web sites, Abu Zubayr Adel al-Abab, described as a sharia official with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as the Yemen branch is called, said the militants identified themselves as Ansar al-Sharia.

“The name Ansar al-Shariah is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah,” said Abab, according to a translationby the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.

Growing aggressiveness

The takeover of Zinjibar underscores the growing aggressiveness and confidence of AQAP, which appears to be taking advantage of political turmoil triggered by the populist rebellion seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The crisis has further deepened since Saleh was severely wounded in a June 3 assault on his presidential palace, forcing him to fly to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment and raising doubts about his ability to rule.

Long before the death of Osama bin Laden, American officials considered AQAP among the most significant threats to U.S. soil and worried that it could create a launchpad to target the United States and its allies. The capture of Zinjibar and nearby towns gives the group access to the Red Sea and its vital oil shipping lanes. The militants are also well positioned to attack the port city of Aden, about 30 miles south.
U.S. State Department and intelligence officials have worried that AQAP will exploit the worsening security situation in Yemen, and American officials have closely tracked the fighting in Zinjibar as a possible early test of the group’s strength in the region. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said AQAP’s sizable presence puts the country on a different tier compared with other nations hit by political unrest.

“It’s the reason why we’ve had such an ongoing, robust counterterrorism cooperation,” Toner told reporters last week. “But as we’ve said many times, that cooperation isn’t hinged on one individual.” Regardless of who leads Yemen, he said, “we’re going to continue to work with the [current] government” to keep the terrorist group from gaining a foothold.

The rise of the Islamist extremists also complicates a political landscape that is crowded with several groups seeking power, including youth activists, the traditional political opposition, Saleh’s loyalists, powerful tribal leaders and defected military generals.

Although the extremists have not declared any national political aspirations, many fear that they could end up ruling portions of the south in the same way the Houthi rebels have done in the north, further dividing the country and eroding the authority of the central government.

“If they remain, they will have great impact on Yemen’s politics,” said Qassem al-Kasadi, a ruling party lawmaker from Abyan. “They could end up ruling over portions of the south. In the areas they have taken over, they are already manning checkpoints and ordering residents to follow sharia.”

Collapse in authority

Yemen’s rugged south has long provided a hiding place for AQAP militants, who are shielded by sympathetic, anti-regime tribes and impenetrable mountains. One of the group’s top leaders, radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, whom the Obama administration has targeted for assassination, is thought to be in the south.

The New Mexico-born Aulaqi has been implicated in attacks on the United States, including the 2009 Fort Hood, Tex., shootings that killed 13, and the failed Christmas Day attempt that year to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner. Last year, AQAP dispatched parcel bombs on cargo flights to the United States.

It’s unclear how many of the extremists are AQAP members. Thousands of Islamist militants, including many former jihadists who fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Muslim nations, live in Yemen. Many have past links to al-Qaeda and express sympathy for the group’s core philosophies. Others have tribal, social and inspirational ties to the terrorist network.

In March, the militants easily seized the small agricultural town of Jaar and surrounding areas, as government troops abandoned their posts. On May 27, extremists took control of Zinjibar, taking advantage of a collapse in authority as government forces battled tribesmen in the streets of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.

Many of Saleh’s opponents accuse him of intentionally ceding ground as a warning to his allies in the United States and the Arab world, as well as ordinary Yemenis, that the nation would collapse if he were to fall from power. They say he has long exaggerated the threat of AQAP to secure funds and support from the West.

“Al-Qaeda appears whenever the regime wants, and they disappear whenever the regime wants,” said Ahmed Abdullah al-Azani, another lawmaker from Abyan. “If the regime wants, it can easily kick these Islamists out.”

Kasadi said he did not believe that Saleh would allow the Islamists to take over so much territory as a ploy to remain in power. “It’s not in the government’s favor if a province falls,” he said. “That shows part of the government has fallen.”

‘We left everything’

In Zinjibar, residents said government buildings and stores are shut down; many were destroyed by the shelling and airstrikes. Government officials and other sources of authority reportedly have fled.

The militants, mostly bearded youths dressed in civilian clothes, are said to control the streets. They retreat during air assaults, then reemerge when things quiet down. Residents described the extremists as polite and not oppressive. There are as many as 700 militants in Zinjibar and surrounding areas, said Yemeni security officials.

In recent days, as the extremists seek to push farther south, the fighting has intensified. That forced Hussein Nasser Abdullah, 48, on Wednesday to quickly leave his home along with 35 relatives, joining thousands of other families. Some sleep inside public schools in Aden, the rest with relatives and friends. “We left everything back there,” Abdullah lamented.

Ali Ashoor sent his wife and three daughters to another town. He spends his days searching for food and water. By nightfall, he locks himself inside his home and sleeps on the first floor, enveloped in darkness and fear. Saturday night illustrated why.

“I can hear bullets and shelling. Both sides are attacking us,” the 56-year-old retired government employee screamed over his cellphone. “I feel my home will get bombed at any minute.”

“Our future is unknown,” he added moments later.

Staff writer Joby Warrick in Amman, Jordan, and a special correspondent in Sanaa contributed to this report.

@ The Washington Post


The death of reporter Saleem Shahzad highlights the sinister 
role of the ISI spy agency

By Declan Walsh

The brutal murder of Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani investigative reporter whose battered body was found in a canal outside Islamabad two weeks ago, remains unsolved. But one thing seems certain. While the men who beat him to death employed ruthless violence – smashing his face, cracking his ribs and piercing his lungs – the cause of death was his own pen.

"They didn't like what he wrote. That's why they killed him," says Ali Dayan Hasan ofHuman Rights Watch, which has played a central role in investigating the case.

Chasing the truth is a perilous business in Pakistan, the world's deadliest beat for journalists. Sixteen have died in the past 18 months, according to Reporters without Borders – more than in the drug wars of Mexico, the street battles of Somalia or the battlefields of Afghanistan.

The causes of these deaths are as varied as Pakistan's myriad conflicts. Some are caught in suicide blasts; others targeted by Taliban militants or Baloch insurgents. In Karachi, several reporters have been gunned down as part of the city's vicious political wars.
But the death of Shahzad, a 40-year-old correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online, has touched a raw nerve because the chief suspect is Pakistan's most powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). "Who will protect us from the protectors?" asked sub-editor Shaheryar Popalzai on Twitter.

Shahzad was no stranger to danger. A specialist in Islamist militancy, he delved deep into the murky underworld of spies, soldiers and militants. He was briefly kidnapped by the Taliban in Helmand in 2006, and interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri, a notorious jihadi reportedly killed in a CIA drone strike last week. And he probed controversial links between those militants and Pakistan's military.
In late May his career reached a new peak: he had just published his first book, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11. At 5.30pm on a Sunday he left his Islamabad home for the Dunya television studios. He was to discuss a story he had written about Islamist infiltration of the military.
But as he passed through the city centre – one of the most heavily guarded precincts in Pakistan – he disappeared. The following morning Human Rights Watch raised the alarm, saying it had established through credible sources that Shahzad was in ISI custody. But it was too late.
Later that day police in Mandi Bahauddin, a Punjabi backwater 80 miles south of the capital, recovered his battered body from an irrigation canal. His car, the keys still inside, was abandoned about 12 miles away. An autopsy revealed 17 different injuries. News of the killing cast a pall of fear and anger over Pakistan's media. Some papers reported the news tentatively, skirting the ISI links. The president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Hameed Haroon, bolstered accusers. "Nobody, not even the ISI should be above the law," he said.
The ISI, already under immense pressure following the death of Osama bin Laden on 2 May, responded with a 374-word statement – possibly the longest in its history – rejecting the allegations as "baseless and unfounded" and warning reporters to act "responsibly".
"[The ISI] will leave no stone unturned in helping to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice," it said. But the spy agency was also being accused from beyond the grave. Before he died Shahzad sent an email recounting a worrisome meeting at ISI headquarters last October. The head of the ISI media wing, rear admiral Adnan Nazir, summoned him to divulge his sources for a story on a released Taliban commander. Shahzad, by his own account, said nothing.
The atmosphere was generally friendly. But before the meeting was over, Nazir told him the ISI had captured a dangerous terrorist with a "hit list", and allegedly said: "If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know."
Taking this as a veiled threat, Shahzad emailed his account of the meeting to Human Rights Watch and several journalists, with instructions to release it in the event of his death.
In its statement the ISI insisted the meeting had "nothing sinister about it". The purpose of such briefings was to provide "accurate information on matters of national security" and notify journalists of threats, it said.
The furore over Shahzad's murder has roiled Pakistan's media, which has undergone massive change over the past decade. Since former president Pervez Musharraf liberalised the television sector in 2004, the number of news channels has gone from one – state-run – to dozens. The boom has created thousands of jobs and fostered a vigorous culture of debate that, ironically, helped unseat Musharraf in 2008. Criticism of the military, previously cautious, has become bolder and more frequent.
But there have also been negatives. Reporting can be reckless, with some channels spreading lurid conspiracy theories in pursuit of ratings. Military and civilians leaders use the media to manipulate public opinion through bribery, intimidation or coercion. And clear "red lines" about what is permissible still exist.
The most egregious case is in conflict-hit Balochistan province, where about a dozen reporters have been killed, kidnapped or tortured by ethnic nationalist rebels or military intelligence since 2009. Media coverage of the conflict is insipid.
In the rest of the country, militancy and the military are the sensitive stories. In 2005 Hayatullah Khan, a reporter in the tribal belt, disappeared after he photographed a fragment of a US missile fired from an unmanned drone. Six months later he was found dead; relatives blamed the ISI.
In 2008 a local reporter working for the Guardian on a story about extra-judicial detention was abducted and tortured by men he believed worked for the government (see story below). Most victims remain silent, fearful of repercussions. One exception is Umar Cheema, a correspondent for the News, who was abducted from Islamabad last September. Bundled into a jeep and blindfolded, he was taken to a safehouse where he says he was stripped, beaten with a leather strap and threatened with rape. After seven hours he was dumped on a road in rural Punjab.
Cheema, who recently won the Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism, has accused the ISI of responsibility for his ordeal. "I realised I had to speak up, because that's the only thing that protects me. Keeping silent will get me killed," he said.
Expectations are low for the inquiry into Shahzad's death. The police are reluctant to pursue the case and, according to the Express Tribune, phone records for the last 18 days of Shahzad's life have been mysteriously erased. "If it is true the ISI was involved, there will be no result," says Benjamin Ismail of Reporters Without Borders.
Meanwhile, some "red lines" have shifted. In the wake of the Bin Laden debacle and Shahzad's death, the ISI has faced unprecedented scrutiny. Former army officers question its tactics; last week opposition MP Ayaz Amir called for the spy agency's budget to be made public. "We must raise the curtain of silence now," he told parliament.
But will journalists be more secure? An interior ministry proposal to issue reporters with gun licences has been dismissed as a political stunt. More serious proposals involve setting up a 24-hour "hot-line", manned by colleagues, for journalists in danger. The most likely outcome, says Ismail, is self-censorship. "Journalists are afraid. Now, even the most famous reporters can be targeted if people don't like their writing. They realise they will have to stop writing if they want to survive."