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Why Some In Yemen See Al-Qaeda As Lesser Of Two Evils

In Yemen, locals are being forced to choose between two sides they hate, al-Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels

May 13, 2015 at 6:35 AM ET

After al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized the port city of Shihr in Yemen, residents took to the street to protest the incursion. But while locals are chafing at the group’s clampdown on everything from electricity to women walking outside on their own, some are saying they prefer al-Qaeda to the group fighting it, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Vocativ contacted activists from the towns of Shir and Mukalla, the two ports along Yemen’s southern coastline. The activists and their fellow residents seem to be taking a lesser of two evils approach to the conflict; they oppose both the Houthis and AQAP, often bitterly, but see AQAP as the lesser of bad options. The activists said residents had even criticized the U.S. drone strikes that have killed some AQAP leaders, saying those strikes had only served the interests of the Houthis.

One activist, Mohammed al-Sharqi, a 27-year-old from Mukallah who also works as a journalist and as a spokesman for a coalition of the area’s tribes, has been leading online campaigns against AQAP ever since the group took over the city in April. “Al-Qaeda controls everything now. They won’t allow women to work, or even to walk anywhere without an escort,” he told Vocativ by phone. Al-Sharqi said he’s had to leave Mukallah because of threats to his family, and is not the only one who has fled.

Al-Sharqi estimated that initially AQAP had about 300 fighters in Mukallah, but said he has heard from a military source that it now has about 1,500 there after it broke into the prison in town last month and freed a number of inmates, including jailed AQAP fighters who quickly returned to the ranks.

“I literally hate them both,” al-Sharqi said of AQAP and the Houthis, but added that he believed al-Qaeda was worse than the Houthis because theirs was a philosophy imported from Saudi Arabia. He said the group now controlled the area’s electricity and was using the port in Shihr to smuggle oil on the black market for funding.

“We are not fans of al-Qaeda,” said one man who gave his name as Nazir, who has recently been recording and posting images of drone attacks in the area to Facebook. “But they are the enemy of our enemy, and at the moment there is no one else.”

Nazir, said that in the current climate, he believed only AQAP could guarantee people’s safety.

“Each person has his own opinion, but at the moment they are the best choice,” he told Vocativ. “The situation in other towns in Yemen resembles the situation in Aden, here it is not as bad.”

Read More:

Everything You Need To Know About The War In Yemen (Vocativ)
Al-Qaeda Takes Over A Second Port In Yemen (Vocativ)