Soldiers with the 25th Mechanized Brigade near the front lines in Zinjibar Yemen. Image credit: Richard Rowley, Big Noise Films
Gen. Mohammed al-Sumali sits in the passenger seat of his armored Toyota Land Cruiser as it whizzes down the deserted highway connecting the Yemeni port city of Aden to Abyan province, where Islamist militants have overrun the provincial capital of Zinjibar. Sumali, a heavy-set man with glasses and a mustache, is the commander of the 25th Mechanized Brigade of the Yemeni armed forces and the man charged with cleansing Zinjibar of the militants. Sumali’s task carries international significance: retaking Zinjibar is seen by many as a final test of the flailing regime of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the unpopular ruler who has deftly exploited the US government’s perception of him as an ally in the fight against terrorism to maintain his grip on power.
The only real traffic on this road consists of refugees fleeing the fighting and heading toward Aden, and military reinforcements moving toward Zinjibar. Sumali did not want to drive out to the front lines on this day and tried to dissuade the journalists in his office. “You know there could be mortars fired at you,” he tells us. Twice, the militants in Zinjibar tried to assassinate the general in that very vehicle. There is a bullet hole in the front windshield, just above his head, and another in his side window, the spider web cracks from the bullets’ impact clearly visible. When we agree not to hold him or his men responsible for what might happen to us, he relents, and we pile in and take off.
As we ride along the coast of the Arabian Sea, past stacks of abandoned mortar tubes, Russian T-72 tanks dug into sand berms and the occasional wandering camel, General Sumali gives his account of what happened on May 27, 2011. On that day, several hundred militants laid siege to Zinjibar, thirty miles northeast of the important southern city of Aden, killing several soldiers, driving out local officials and taking control within two days. Sumali attributes the takeover to an “intelligence breakdown,” explaining, “We were surprised in late May with the flow of a large number of terrorist militants into Zinjibar.” He adds that the militants “raided and attacked some security sites. They were able to seize these institutions. We were surprised when the governor, his deputies and other local officials fled to Aden.” As the Yemeni military began fighting the militants, General Sumali tells me, men from Yemen’s Central Security Forces fled, abandoning heavy weaponry as they retreated. The CSF, whose counterterrorism unit is armed, trained and funded by the United States, is commanded by President Saleh’s nephew Yahya. (A media outlet associated with the militants reported that they seized “heavy artillery pieces, modern antiaircraft weapons, a number of tanks and armored transports in addition to large quantities of different kinds of ammunition.”)
Sumali says that as his forces attempted to repel the attack on Zinjibar in early June, they were attacked by the militants using the artillery seized from the CSF units. “Many of my men were killed,” he says. The Islamist fighters also conducted a series of bold raids on the base of the 25th Mechanized on the southern outskirts of Zinjibar. In all, more than 230 Yemeni soldiers have been killed in battles with the militants since last May. “These guys are incredibly brave,” the general concedes, speaking of the militants. “If I had an army full of men with that bravery, I could conquer the world.”
* * *
According to critics of the crumbling Saleh regime, Sumali’s account is charitable at best about the role played by the Yemeni security forces in Zinjibar. They allege that Saleh’s forces allowed the city to fall. The fighting there began as Saleh faced mounting calls both inside and outside Yemen for his resignation; several of his key allies had defected to the growing opposition movement. After thirty-three years of outwitting his opponents, they say, Saleh saw that the end was near. “Saleh himself actually handed over Zinjibar to these militants,” asserts Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a well-connected political analyst. “He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists.” That theory, while unproven, is not baseless. Since the mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and continuing after 9/11, Saleh has famously milked the threat of Al Qaeda and other militants to leverage counterterrorism funding and weapons from the United States and Saudi Arabia, to bolster his power within the country and to neutralize opponents.