Residents of Azzan are forced to comply with Sharia. Most music is forbidden in public areas and women are not allowed to work.
Al Qaeda militants take control of another Yemen province
SANAA // With the Al Qaeda black flag raised on its mountain peaks, Azzan is the newest emirate Islamic militants control in southern Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said in a statement issued last week that Azzan would join Zinjibar, Abyan province, as an emirate of their Islamic state.
The police station in Azzan has been turned into the regional headquarters of Ansar Al Sharia, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, to coordinate attacks and expansion opportunities, said Abdullah Baotha, who escaped Azzab last fall, and current residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Residents are forced to comply with Sharia. Most music is forbidden in public areas, with only Islamic songs with voices and drums given as an alternative.
Shop owners are told to grow their beards the length of a fist. Women are not allowed to work and those who need to leave their homes must be covered in a burqa at all times. Curriculum in schools focuses mainly on Islamic law and Quranic preaching.
"Televisions or magazines are not allowed. We know nothing of what happens around us," said Mr Baotha. "People are scared but cannot express their fear." He said hundreds of residents succeeded in leaving the district, but thousands remain.
Security forces have been replaced with veiled militants who are stationed at checkpoints throughout the district. The militants roam the streets and occupy every building that used to house a government institution.
Foreign fighters see Azzan as a safe haven. Anwar Al Awlaqi, the Yemeni-American cleric killed in a US drone attack in September, made the district a hideout for three months last year. Residents said at least 200 foreign fighters live in the district and train Yemeni militants. Fighters from Saudi Arabia and Somalia can frequently be seen roaming the area.
Located in the heart of southern Yemen, Azzan is near the oil and gas pipelines of Bahlaf, the country's most lucrative investment.
Its mountainous terrain makes it hard for government forces to attack from the ground.
"We understand that residents of Azzan are suffering, and the government has them among its top priorities. We have not forgotten them," said Ali Obaid, the spokesperson of the Yemen Military Committee.
The closest government military presence is in Ataq, the capital of Shabwa, where hundreds of security forces are stationed.
"Al Qaeda has been using Azzan as a stronghold for nearly a year now. They are in control of everything, and residents there are given the choice to obey orders or leave the district," said a senior security official in Ataq, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Azzan is the launch pad for their attacks. It's their strategic homeland."
President Abdurabu Hadi has vowed to eliminate Al Qaeda in Yemen.
"Fighting Al Qaeda is a priority for the government. Attacks will continue against terror hideouts until they are uprooted," he said on Thursday.
Experts on Al Qaeda question how the militant group took over Azaan without a fight last year. "No one heard of a bullet being used after the militants took over Azzan. One day it was part of Yemen and the next day it was an emirate of Al Qaeda," said Abdul Salam Mohammed, the director of the Sanaa-based Abaad Strategic Center. "Don't expect Azzan to be the last Al Qaeda emirate in Yemen. Many other towns will follow," he said.