In spring 2011, AQAP began seizing control of towns in the southern Abyan province. An AQAP division known as Ansar al-Sharia took governing control of these areas, declaring them "Islamic emirates" and ruling them according to the group's vision of Islamic law. AQAP launched its offensive at a time when the country was torn by intensifying rebel movements and a power struggle between rival government and military factions led by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, respectively. This left the government distracted and unable to challenge the militants' control over the cities.
In November 2011, Saleh agreed to transfer power to his vice president, Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, who formally became president in February 2012. Since taking office, Hadi has begun to demonstrate his ability to build an independent power base, and the United States and Saudi Arabia have backed the fledgling leader with financial, logistical and intelligence support.
In early May, with the support of Washington, Riyadh, a number of local tribes and even southern secessionists, Hadi ordered the military to resume the battle against AQAP. The group's militants had been able to hold the towns in Abyan for several weeks, but their defenses began to crumble on June 11. The military took full control of the town of Batis, roughly 16 kilometers (10 miles) north of the AQAP stronghold of Jaar. According to a Yemeni military official in Abyan, government forces battled militants throughout the night, and warplanes and helicopters struck various militant-controlled areas. On June 12, the army continued to push south toward the militant stronghold of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
Instead of continuing the fight against the Yemeni army, AQAP militants reportedly withdrew from both Jaar and Zinjibar, stating that they did not want to spill any more blood. Despite the group's claim, the militants understood that they would be defeated in a conventional battle with the Yemeni military. This was the first time the militants have acknowledged a unilateral withdrawal. In late January 2012, AQAP announced a withdrawal from the town of Radaa, which it briefly controlled, but this was due to tribal negotiations. The Yemeni army has now reportedly turned its attention to the AQAP-controlled coastal city of Shaqra. A number of militants fleeing Jaar and Zinjibar have attempted to escape eastward via boat from Shaqra, but airstrikes have hit 10 boats carrying fleeing militants, according to the Yemeni Defense Ministry.
The Yemeni military will likely continue this offensive in the few cities AQAP still controls. However, after this campaign has concluded, the question becomes one of sustaining its gains. Abyan province is not the only strife-ridden region of Yemen; violence is ongoing among the al-Houthi rebels in the north as well as the secessionist movement in the south. Moreover, internal tensions remain within the central government and the country's security apparatus.
Government forces cannot occupy the towns in question indefinitely. To balance tensions in Yemen's periphery and ensure that AQAP does not retake the towns, the Yemeni government will require the help of southern tribes and the southern secessionist movement to engage and beat back the militants in the future. Although some tribes are aligned with AQAP, other tribes have already been fighting the militants as part of the Yemeni military's current campaign. Furthermore, Hadi is originally from Abyan province and has successfully garnered anti-militant support from local tribes. Saudi Arabia also strongly backs Hadi's initiatives and has funneled money to the tribes.
Yemen has employed tribes to maintain security throughout its modern history, but this strategy often eventually backfires. To effectively combat militancy and restive movements in the longer term, the government will need to unify the country's divided military, security and intelligence organizations — an extremely difficult task.
Even if the government can unite and work with local tribes to keep AQAP from retaking lost territory, al Qaeda-linked militants likely will continue a lower-level insurgency similar to the group's approach prior to January 2011. This would involve launching targeted attacks throughout Yemen, including the nation's capital of Sanaa. Such attacks require far less manpower and coordination than controlling and governing cities, yet they can still cause high casualty counts and inflict significant damage to the country's security and military infrastructure.