Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia announced its conditions for withdrawing its fighters from Abyan province on Saturday (February 4th), a move that some say is sign of al-Qaeda's weakened position.
Sheikh Tariq al-Fadhli, an elder from Abyan, delivered Ansar al-Sharia's conditions to a Yemeni government committee on Saturday in the coastal area of Shaqra. Yemeni Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi had ordered the formation of the committee, which is led by parliamentarian Sheikh Awad bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki.
Mediation efforts led by local tribal leaders last month succeeded in persuading al-Qaeda to leave the city of Radaa in the southern province of al-Baidaa.
Al-Qaeda has been in control of the city of Jaar in Abyan since March, and violent clashes are ongoing between the organisation and the Yemeni army and tribal fighters for control of Zinjibar, the provincial capital.
"Al-Qaeda members set terms for leaving Abyan, including payment between 5 and 7 billion riyals ($23 million-$32 million) in compensation for their dead and wounded, formation of a local council to manage the province's affairs in accordance with Sharia law, withdrawal of the army and deployment of security forces to take their place, and securing safe passage for al-Qaeda fighters to remote, uninhabited mountain areas," Ahmed al-Rahwi, deputy governor of Abyan province, told Al-Shorfa.
The conditions represent an effort by al-Qaeda to manipulate the government and the citizens of Abyan "who will only agree to an unconditional withdrawal by al-Qaeda and the army's presence to ensure security in the region," al-Rahwi said. He went on to criticise the condition regarding the local council that "would surely be infiltrated by al-Qaeda".
Abdullah al-Muqtari, a member of the House of Representatives, criticised the government for forming a committee to negotiate with Ansar al-Sharia.
"The military committee and the government need to take responsibility for maintaining security and stability but not by negotiating with that terrorist organisation," al-Muqtari told Al-Shorfa.
"Al-Qaeda's exit from Radaa occurred under different circumstances because the militants who stormed Radaa were local inhabitants," he said. "Additionally, the men and the tribes in Radaa took a strong stand against the organisation's members until they forced them to leave, which is not the case in Abyan province."
Mohammed al-Ghabri, a political analyst, said the government might be able to secure gains through the work of the committee.
"Al-Qaeda needs the dialogue as much as the government does because it has achieved nothing on the ground that can be considered an accomplishment, and its members believe that if the situation stabilises, the army would be able to drive them out by force and pursue them as was the case prior to 2011," he said.
"Al-Qaeda's strategy does not take a favourable view of staying within a confined geographical area as is the case now in Jaar and Zinjibar," al-Ghabri said. "They prefer to expand across several locations so the adversary does not have an opportunity to surround them in a confined area, making it easier for the adversary to defeat them."