Mukalla inhabitants relieved at al-Qaeda’s eviction
SANA'A - “It was a year of terror. In addition to the arbitrary detentions, we dreaded their attempts to lure our children into their ranks through brainwashing in mosques,” said Ahmad bin Breik describing al- Qaeda’s rule over the strategic port city of Mukalla in southern Yemen.
“Their practices were aimed at spreading terror and intimidating the people who had no other option than accept their presence or face violence and torture,” he said.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the militant group’s dangerous Yemen-based branch — was forced out of the city on April 25th by forces of the Saudi-led Arab coalition supporting exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in the war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The militants overran the city of more than 200,000 in April 2015, taking advantage of a power vacuum caused by months of instability and political turmoil.
During its reign, al-Qaeda religious police occupied Mukalla’s streets to supervise the implementation of their interpretation of sharia law. Women were forced to fully cover their bodies in public. Free-mixing between sexes was forbidden. Music in all forms was banned.
“They restricted all public freedoms, terrorised people through arbitrary arrests and mostly harassed women in the street. They imposed on us to wear the ‘religious dress’ and instructed cloth shops to sell abayas and long dresses only,” said Laila Sakkaf, a teacher from Mukalla.
Al-Qaeda’s slogans still hang in the streets of the city. “Faithful woman: Protect your pure body from prying eyes,” reads one of them.
In early January, a woman who was accused of committing adultery was stoned to death in public, drawing wide recriminations from the city’s inhabitants. Couples seen together were detained and punishments were regularly administered in public.
The militants demanded the public attend the execution in the city square and uploaded the filmed incident onto the internet, said Ghadir Attas, a young woman in Mukalla.
“What they have committed was a sheer crime for which they should be severely punished,” she said. “Islam is not about killing and terrorism. Had the woman really committed adultery, they should have exposed the man with whom she has sinned and punished him the same way but they are nothing but criminal gangs who seek to legitimise their crimes,” she said.
Professor of Islamic Studies at Sana’a University Abdel Jalil al- Shmeiri said cruelty has been a main feature of jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), which claim to apply Islamic rule.
“They believe that the crueller the punishment is, the happier their God will be as if the Divine has been waiting for (ISIS leader Abu Bakr) al-Baghdadi to defend Islam. Such a sterile thinking, which was predominant in Christian Europe in medieval times, is now spreading in the Muslim Middle East,” Shmeiri said.
“Whatever edicts or rulings these groups have been issuing are basically politically motivated but implemented under the guise of religion in order to scare and deter people.”
According to sociologist Amal Kabati, women suffered the most in conflict situations, both at home and outside. “They are also the ones to endure mostly from the tyranny of extremist groups who see in religion a means to tighten the noose on them and keep them under close control,” Kabati said.
“Women’s condition in Yemen was already difficult before the outbreak of the fierce war we are experiencing at present and it was not surprising to have Yemen at the bottom scale of the international Gender Inequality Index. There are many reasons for that, including poverty, customs and traditions as well as religious interpretations which reinforce beliefs of women’s inferiority.
“How can anyone talk about the future of women in Yemen amid a raging war and the expansion of extremist militant groups?” she asked, noting that violations against women have been increasing in an alarming way after the February 2011 uprising that toppled Saleh.
Al-Qaeda militants’ cruelty was not limited to women. Men were subjected to public lashings for accusations of offences such as apostasy, drinking alcohol and use of drugs.
The terror group also engaged in a massive campaign to recruit Mukalla’s youth. “The new recruits were trained extensively on the use of weapons and on conducting assaults and suicide operations. They were coached by foreign trainers, mainly Saudi nationals, at an army base in the area of Rayan, on the outskirts of the city, and given lectures in religion,” political observer Hisham Jabiri said.
Now that al-Qaeda forces have been driven out of Mukalla, residents who had lived behind closed doors for the most part of the year, roam the streets with relief as they attempt to rebuild their lives.
“People are breathing freely again. Employees have returned to their jobs and students to their schools. Some normal life is reinstalled in the city that has gone through a very dark period,” said bin Breik.