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Mukalla, Yemen – Exploiting the chaos engulfing Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has established itself as a major power broker in the rugged desert region of Hadramout, as the war-torn country’s exiled government and its GCC allies remain occupied in a conflict with Houthi fighters.
Since seizing the coastal city of Mukalla in mid-April, the armed group has asserted itself as a defender of Sunni Muslims threatened by the Shia Houthi fighters, and as a modicum of stability in a bitterly divided tribal region.
Providing residents with basic services, such as drinking water, electricity, and fuel, AQAP has partnered with local tribes to form the Hadramout National Council (HNC) – a militia which protects banks, local government buildings, and schools, while administering its own form of justice amid the collapse of a central authority.
However, critics say the HNC, founded mainly by religious figures, is nothing short of a front for AQAP as it continues to consolidate and expand its territory.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, HNC Secretary-General Abdul-Hakeem bin Mahfood, says AQAP, whom he referred to as the “Sons of Hadramout”, are a crucial partner for peace.
Al Jazeera: Can you talk in detail about the Hadramout National Council: Who created it? What are its objectives?
Abdul-Hakeem bin Mahfood: As the war was raging in southern and northern Yemen, people were taken aback on April 2 by the news that a group of young men stormed the city of Mukalla amid the quick crumbling of security services, army, and the Republican Guard.
A group of people, including leaders from the Sunni Scholars Council, tribal leaders, and social dignitaries approached those young men who appeared to be members of al-Qaeda and told them that their presence in the capital of Mukalla would spell destruction for the city and would trigger regional and international military intervention.
The men from al-Qaeda, who labelled themselves as ‘Sons of Hadramout’, were from famous Hadrami families [families from Hadramout]. They told the delegation that they did not control Mukalla in their capacity as members of al-Qaeda, but rather as children of Hadramout and that is why they neither raised their flag nor released a statement claiming to have captured Mukalla city.
They told us that they were ready to hand over government institutions to a council formed from the people of Hadramout, chosen by the Muslim leaders and dignitaries, and they would devote their power to fighting the advancing Houthis.
Al Jazeera: So the scholars and other dignitaries embraced al-Qaeda’s proposal and formed the council afterwards?
Bin Mahfood: There was an agreement between al-Qaeda and the delegation that the council would be responsible for normalising the situation in the city, running the government institutions, and would not be operating as ‘a state within a state’, but rather work under the umbrella of the state.
Al Jazeera: Did the Riyadh-based, exiled Yemeni government give its approval for your efforts?
Bin Mahfood: Ten days after establishing the council [on April 13], we sent a delegation to Riyadh, who met with [exiled Yemeni] President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi praised the council for its efforts in restoring peace and security in the city.
Since day one, we have been in direct contact with the governor of Hadramout [Adel Bahumaid], who stayed for days in Mukalla after al-Qaeda took control, and then [he] moved to Riyadh. During the talks [with al-Qaeda], the governor strongly encouraged us to go ahead as to spare the province destruction and [more] fighting.
Al Jazeera: Did the agreement stipulate that al-Qaeda should fully pull out of the city of Mukalla?
Bin Mahfood: The agreement was written and included three points: First, handing government institutions to a council formed by the people of Hadramout. Second, the council would take charge of security and police stations. Finally, the ‘Sons of Hadramout’ would hand the council some of the money that they took from the central bank in Mukalla to help restore basic services.
Al Jazeera: So al-Qaeda will not leave the city soon, as many people had predicted then?
Bin Mahfood: The agreement did not include [al-Qaeda’s] complete withdrawal from the city. Rather, that they would disappear from the scene by pulling out of key institutions and the city’s entrances, so as to save the city from bombardment.
[At that time,] people were so desperate for help from anyone to confront the Houthis’ advances into the province from Abyan and Shabwa. Al-Qaeda said that they would be on the front-lines. The council was an entity that was assigned to bring people together if the Houthis got close to the province.
The council proposed to the [al-Qaeda] men that all people should find a suitable mechanism that would allow them to withdraw before exposing the city to destruction, and also not allow a repeat of Zinjibar [an area in Abyan province captured by al-Qaeda in 2011]. From their private and public talks, it appears that [al-Qaeda] is willing to withdraw, but the details must be discussed during round-table discussions between AQAP and the government.
Al Jazeera: What would your role be in these talks if they were to take place? Do you think the government would agree to engage in talks with al-Qaeda?
Bin Mahfood: The role of the council and the Sunni Scholars Council would be mediating between the two sides. We think that the ground is ripe for negotiations, as both the state and the young men of [al-Qaeda] have initially agreed to the idea.
Al Jazeera: Who from the state welcomed the idea of engaging in talks with al-Qaeda?
Bin Mahfood: The main state body that is responsible for handling the situation in Mukalla is the second military regiment commanded by Major General Abdul-Raheem Atteq. He has shown great willingness to save Hadramout from destruction. On the other hand, the Sons of Hadramout also maintain that they would not advance their organisation’s interests over the country’s.
Al Jazeera: What have you achieved on behalf of the city of Mukalla since April?
Bin Mahfood: One of our important achievements has been allowing the coastal areas of Hadramout to enjoy peace and security, as many cities in Yemen were suffering from war, destruction, and shortages of water and basic services.
The council recently pumped $2.79m into the electricity sector to pay salaries, buy new electrical power transformers, and replace decaying networks. Thanks to the council, the city’s stability allows us to receive 150,000 displaced people from Aden and other provinces. Other achievements include the continuation of services like regular supplies of fuel and fixing its price, the maintenance of the seaport, cleanliness of the city, healthcare and water services.
Al Jazeera: What are the sources of your funds?
Bin Mahfood: Our main source is the fluctuated percentage from each litre of fuel imported to the city. We usually get a cut of $0.09 or $0.02 for each litre of diesel or gasoline. Plus, [we have] $3.7m that we received from the Sons of Hadramout.
Al Jazeera: Your critics have accused you of being a face for al-Qaeda, as you did not only increase its presence in the city, but also legalised their ‘occupation’ of this important city. How do you respond to that?
Bin Mahfood: This is not true. When al-Qaeda, or the Sons of Hadramout, entered Mukalla, we did not hand the city to them and flee the country. We stepped forward with the idea of the council to save the country from destruction, as we felt that their presence in key installations would lead to military action [against the city].
We think that if we did not form the council, the city would have been akin to Aden, as people would take up arms if there were no services. The council is formed by respected leaders, preachers, dignitaries, and tribal leaders.
Al Jazeera: Can you shed some light on your security manpower, which has taken charge of the security sector from al-Qaeda?
Bin Mahfood: We have 5,000 people who have been or are being trained on some military sites in the city, but we lack logistic means, such as arms, ammunition, and salaries for those soldiers. We have deployed some of them at the airport, the seaport, the police camp and the central bank [branch] in Mukalla. We have never received any arms – either from the state or the Sons of Hadramout.
Al Jazeera: Do you have branches in other al-Qaeda-controlled districts?
Bin Mahfood: There are minor councils connected with our council in Sheher, Ghail Bawazer, Shohair, Raida and Qusair.
Al Jazeera: Are you in touch with the Saudi government?
Bin Mahfood: Our delegations that visited the Saudi capital have met with all parties, including the Saudis.
Al Jazeera: The United States has ramped up drone attacks on al-Qaeda operatives in the city of Mukalla, killing many of their leaders. What is your take on drone strikes in your city?
Bin Mahfood: It is known that drone strikes are provocative actions, extrajudicial killing, and a violation of sovereignty, as they [al-Qaeda] are not subject to prosecution.
Al Jazeera: Who will prosecute them if they are in control of the city?
Bin Mahfood: Even if they control the city, this should not justify killing them because they are affiliated with al-Qaeda. They should be faced with proven allegations and then put on trial. And we should see if [they] deserve capital punishment for that crime.
Al Jazeera: When will you resign?
Bin Mahfood: We will leave when the state returns and resumes its duties from here.