As Yemen slides into chaos, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage of the deteriorating security and political situation to gain further ground in the country. The jihadist group recently took control of a large chunk of the southeastern province of Hadhramaut. Our Observer explains how AQAP's jihadists have been tightening their grip over the region and its inhabitants on a daily basis.
Air strikes carried out by an alliance of Gulf states have largely slowed the advance of Shiite Houthi rebels in southern Yemen. But that hasn't been their only consequence. In just four months AQAP has managed to wrest control of several cities in Hadhramaut, including the region's capital, the port city of Mukalla. Militants have even taken over the local branch of Yemen's central bank, police stations and military headquarters.
"They've started patrolling while carrying megaphones"
At the start, the arrival of al Qaeda improved security in the city because thefts and looting had been on the rise since the beginning of the air strikes. The group's members were very reassuring towards the residents. They said that they had no intention of applying Sharia law straight away, but favoured dialogue with the local population.
But little by little, the group began imposing its laws. Firstly, they burned down markets where khat is sold [Editor's note: a popular soft drug in Yemen]. They also banned sale of the drug, though they didn't lay into users.
They also started patrolling the streets of the city. Often, the fighters would stop women if they found that their veils didn’t conform to AQAP rules, or if they found their perfume to be too strong. At first, it was not so bad. The AQAP militants were happy enough just giving out 'advice'.
Then, they began carrying out patrols in shops with megaphones, during prayer time, to ask shopkeepers to close and go to the mosque. During prayer time, they started using wooden bats to hit shop doors to pressure shop owners to close their metal shutters. So even if they said they were just giving out 'advice', they were intimidating the shopkeepers, who ended up obeying.
The group started tightening the noose when Ramadan began. At the end of June, militants closed a mausoleum in the city of Chahr wher, every Ramadan, Sufi Muslims would carry out a six-day pilgrimage.
Not long after the Chahr mausoleum was closed, a member of al Qaeda called for the destruction of all mausoleums in Mukalla during prayer-time in a mosque. The next day, I found out that the mausoleum in Chahr had been blown up using explosives. Yet the group never claimed responsibility for the act.
At the start of July, they began handing out leaflets that announced new sanctions against people selling Khat. Until then, they had only gone as far as confiscating the merchandise, but now they've made it punishable with a fine that could reach a million rials [Editor's note: roughly 4,000 Euros] - a fortune here in Yemen - and the confiscation of the sellers' vehicle.
A few days ago, AQAP also transformed a local tribunal into the headquarters of the 'Hesba', their religious police.
I also met musicians who usually sing at marriage ceremonies who said that AQAP no longer allowed them to work. As for us journalists, AQAP said we could continue to work, but they warned us not to publish any 'untruthful information' about them.
The situation in Mukalla has gotten far worse in the past few weeks due to the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict between Houthi rebels and supporters of president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi [Editor's note: recognised by the international community], who are backed by Arab coalition air strikes. Local associations have called on international NGOs to provide more humanitarian aid to these refugees. But all of the NGOs refused to send aid, out of fear that al Qaeda get their hands on it.