Yemeni soldiers resting in May 2014 after taking control of Azzan, an Al Qaida stronghold in Shabwa Province, which was the site of a large military offensive. Image Credit: AFP

Azzan, Yemen: As hundreds of Yemeni troops rolled in here in August to attack Al Qaida militants, secondary school students were sitting for final exams. Helicopters buzzed overhead and armed vehicles patrolled the streets, but the school’s principal, Saleh Al Wahidi, did not dismiss his students.

“I did not suspend the exams simply because I did not expect a battle,” said Wahidi, a 62-year-old man with a carrot-coloured goatee.

Indeed, the Yemeni forces, backed by advisers and air power from the UAE and the US, had deliberately left an escape route for the outnumbered Al Qaida fighters to flee, allowing the Yemenis to seize this strategically important town without taking casualties.

Control of Azzan, a pivotal crossroads town in Shabwa province that has long been a stronghold of Al Qaida in Southern Yemen, has seesawed back and forth between the government and the insurgents since 2011, and the government takeover offers evidence, Yemeni officials say, that the tide is turning for good in its favour.

The offensive in Shabwa is also the latest phase of an increased US campaign against Al Qaida’s branch in Yemen since President Donald Trump took office.

Known as Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, it is widely considered the terrorist group’s most dangerous worldwide affiliate, with a particular focus on trying to blow up commercial airliners.

Here and elsewhere in the country’s central and southern regions, US-backed Yemeni forces have been waging a shadow war against more than 3,000 members of an affiliate of Al Qaida and their tribal fighters. Since February 28, the United States has conducted more than 100 air strikes against Al Qaida militants in Yemen, according to the Pentagon, nearly three times the total for all of last year.

The Yemenis in recent weeks have also captured some important Al Qaida operatives.

Their interrogations have given the Yemeni forces and their US and Emirati partners valuable insights into the insurgents’ leadership hierarchy, propaganda plans and local networks, a US official said.

Here in Azzan, Wahidi said residents had been tipped off about the impending attack by home-grown troops in the advancing force.

“Those are our sons,” Wahidi said as he reclined on a hard pillow and chewed khat, the narcotic leaves widely consumed in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. “Most of the soldiers graduated from Azzan secondary school.”

The night before, residents said, warplanes hovered over the town and dropped flash bombs at suspected Al Qaida militants gathering in the nearby mountains. Ahead of their arrival, the Yemeni troops also fired machine guns that rocked the town, another tactic to scare the militants.

As the insurgents melted away, the Yemenis marched toward a military camp on a small hill overlooking Azzan that Al Qaida fighters had used. Mohammad Al Qumishi, commander of the forces, locally known as Shabwani Elite Forces, bragged about the success of his troops in hunting down senior Al Qaida operatives in Shabwa.

“We have captured eight bigheads,” said Qumishi, adding that local residents who sold arms to al-Qaida were released after pledging to no longer deal with the militants.

The Shabwani force is made up of 4,000 local tribesmen who fought off Shiite militia in northern Yemen in 2015. The forces were trained by Emirati military instructors in a desert area of nearby Hadramout province, and took orders from the Emiratis during the recent offensive. An unidentified number of other troops are being trained in the same area.

Months before, the Emirati trainers promised local tribal leaders that the Emirati Red Crescent would dole out money to revive crumbled social services if the local fighters helped push Al Qaida from their territory.

The elders agreed, and the town’s main schools and hospital were painted on time, but teachers and other public servants who would run these facilities say they have not been paid in several months.

Yemen analysts say counterterrorism may not be the only motive driving the offensive here. Shabwa is home to major oil and gas facilities that are being reopened and involve international companies, which means commercial interests may also be at stake, said Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at the University of Oxford who visited the country in August.

That said, Kendall noted that there are clear signs that the offensive has put a dent in Al Qaida’s fortunes. The group publicly warned residents in August against joining the Emirati-led Yemeni forces. “It attempts to merge AQAP’s religious agenda with local tribal concerns, distilling a complex political landscape into a simple apocalyptic battle of good guys versus bad guys,” she said, referring to Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The streets of Azzan, a commercial gathering place for thousands of people from four neighbouring districts in Shabwa, are unpaved and dusty. Trash covers the ground, the result of years of uncollected garbage. Electricity works only about five hours a day. Water is also unavailable most of the day. On working days, Azzan is packed with thousands of shoppers; during the weekend in Yemen, the streets are nearly empty except for some passing African immigrants.

Tough-looking soldiers manning two checkpoints at the entrance to the town carefully check cars and search for weapons or cameras. Armed tribesmen must relinquish their guns if they wish to enter. Celebratory gunfire during night-time weddings was banned. The result is that security has improved for the first time in years, residents said.

The town has held significance since 2011, when Al Qaida militants seized control here, exploiting a security vacuum as the government of Yemen’s long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, faced major protests during the Arab Spring calling for his ouster.

Yemeni government forces launched a major military offensive and recaptured the town in 2012. The militants withdrew to the mountains and from there plotted a deadly counteroffensive.

The militants reclaimed Azzan in 2013, but this time under the pretext of stopping thugs who had robbed and killed local people. At the same time, the militants made concerted efforts to fix public services like electricity, water and sanitation. Steel trash bins brought in by Al Qaida fighters are still scattered in the city’s dirty streets.

In 2014, Yemen’s army launched yet another offensive and retook the town. In the following months, militants mounted relentless attacks against government forces. Pock-marked houses still bear the scars of these heavy gun battles. Part of the city’s main hospital, built during the British reign before 1967, was levelled by air strikes. Wealthy residents left their ruined houses standing in the hope of receiving promised compensation from the government.

When a Saudi-led coalition began a new bombing campaign against the militants in 2015, security and vital services crumbled, opening a vacuum that enabled Al Qaida to make another comeback. Residents said the militants did not declare Azzan an Islamic emirate as they had in the past, instead sending operatives to the town to kidnap security personnel.

Most residents said they abhorred the militants, but a few still speak highly of the strict order they imposed and the amenities they provided. “They brought back peace and put an end to robbery and theft,” said Abdul Rahman Al Ashmali, whose relative was kidnapped by Al Qaida in 2013. “Power and water services were available all the time.”

Al Qaida militants who ruled Azzan are now hiding in the Saeed region, a rugged area in the Shabwa and Moudea districts in Abyan province, about 50 miles west of here, said Qumishi, the Yemeni commander. “Several months ago, they pulled all of their arms and important documents from Azzan as they were predicting our arrival,” he said.