Al-Qaida Takes To The Hills Of Yemen's Badlands Yemeni troops, backed by the U.S., say they have retaken the final stronghold of al-Qaida-linked militants in the country's south. But as a visit to the area reveals, the militants' retreat may be a tactical decision, rather than a defeat.

Al-Qaida Takes To The Hills Of Yemen's Badlands

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In Yemen this week, the U.S.-backed offensive against al-Qaida suffered a blow. The newly appointed commander of Yemeni forces in the country's south was assassinated. He had launched and commanded the offensive there. A suicide bomber killed him in front of his home.

NPR's Kelly McEvers traveled recently to territory in the south that had been held by al-Qaida and its allies.Yemeni forces say they have retaken it. But as Kelly saw, the fight is far from over.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: All right, yeah, so we're getting in our vehicle now, at this final checkpoint - headed, presumably, to the front lines. Yes.

We're in a Yemeni army Land Cruiser with a shattered windshield. Our destination is the town of Shaqra. It's the final town in this province that up till last week, was held by al-Qaida and its local partner, Ansar al-Sharia; basically, the last town in the al-Qaida badlands before the sandy ground turns into mountains.

Here we go.

The idea is that these Yemeni soldiers are taking us to where their final battles with the al-Qaida militants happened, just the day before. Yemeni state TV has been taking great pains to paint this offensive as a victory. But when we get to Shaqra, it's a slightly different story.

We are now in the center of Shaqra. It looks like a normal town - no real heavy military presence; everybody is out in the middle of the street.

No evidence of bullets or artillery; no soldiers holding territory. In other words, it doesn't look like there was much of a fight here. The soldier who's driving us is afraid to even turn off the main street.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

He's saying that most of the people here are dogs. They're with al-Qaida; and afraid that they - if we go- even inside and (unintelligible) inside the city, they can shoot at the military car. They're not anywhere trusted.

MCEVERS: Which says, to me, that the military does not control this area.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not at all. I don't think so - at all.

MCEVERS: This seems to confirm what al-Qaida has been saying in recent days. It's not so much that they were defeated in these towns, but that their leaders mounted a tactical retreat, back to the mountains.

We pull up to a shop to see if we can get some water. While the soldiers are inside, people crowd around our truck. I'm warned to turn off the tape recorder - but turn it on again, once we're back on the bumpy road.


MCEVERS: Some guys came up to the truck and were saying, you know, you should come and take a picture of the houses. Their children were killed; people were killed. And I looked at one soldier, and I said - like, I pointed at the air; like, a bomb coming from the air? And he said yes.


MCEVERS: The soldiers won't take us to the site of the bombing. But we later confirm there was an airstrike in Shaqra - that killed six children and one woman - just the day before we visited. It's still not clear whether the Yemeni air force launched the strike, or if it was a U.S. military or CIA drone. All of these are being employed in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen right now. And they certainly complicate the picture here in Shaqra, and other towns.

Not only do people here say it only increases their anger against the U.S. - seen as an evildoer that kills innocent bystanders - but also against the Yemeni government. This is even more worrisome here in Yemen's south, which was its own country up until 1994, and which has seen some people pushing for independence again, in the past year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: As we drive by southern tribesmen who worked with these Yemeni soldiers to rout al-Qaida, they flash the V sign - not, residents say, because they're claiming victory over al-Qaida, but to show they still hope to claim victory over the central government. A lot of these tribesmen are now manning checkpoints here. We find a group of them holding a post office they say was trashed by al-Qaida militants.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: So I'm saying - they didn't get allowance. He's saying it's supposed to be with the (unintelligible), the leader of them. However...

MCEVERS: The men tells us they are just volunteers; that so far, the government only gives them food and a few bullets. They say they hope the government army will give them jobs someday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: That is a promise - they will put us in the army. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MCEVERS: What if they don't?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Easy, they say. We'll get rid of them.


MCEVERS: As we leave the al-Qaida badlands behind, a Yemeni colleague plays a song that's big these days: Oh leaders, where are you, the song goes. Where is our dignity and honor? Then the singer issues a kind of threat to the Yemeni government. When the volcano explodes, he says, it will burn.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sanaa, Yemen.

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