MAHFAD, Yemen: At first glance, the neat handwriting in blue ink could be from a school notebook. Prize apart the pages – stuck together by sand and water – and it becomes clear that the book belonged to a militant from Al-Qaeda. Discarded in shrubbery in the mountains of southern Yemen, it covers everything from the principles of a raid – “Surprise, firepower, a sacrificial spirit, quick performance” – to the ultimate goal: “Establishing an Islamic state that rules by Shariah.”
The notebook, with the name Abu al-Dahdah al-Taazi in red calligraphy on the first page, is one relic of what a local Yemeni governor called a leadership camp for Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). The camp, now abandoned, was visited by Reuters reporters in May. Locals in the nearby town of Mahfad described how they had tolerated hundreds of militants for three years. Then in April, after the militants posted online a video boasting of their presence, U.S. drones and the Yemeni army attacked encampments in the region. The villagers say it was then that they asked the fighters to leave.
The story of the camp shows how deeply embedded Al-Qaeda fighters had become in the country’s remote, destitute south.
“We didn’t realize they were that many until the night they all left. That last night when they withdrew, we saw all these people, with families, more than 60, 70 cars,” said tribal leader Sheikh Nasser al-Shamee in Mahfad.
The “emir” of AQAP’s Mahfad cell was a local man called Ali bin Lakraa’, say Yemeni officials. He later died of wounds suffered during the strikes, according to one official, who described the cell as AQAP’s most active, responsible for multiple attacks against military and oil and gas facilities.
Last month the Yemeni army said 500 militants and 40 soldiers have been killed since it launched the offensive against the group in April.
So far, the raids like the one near Mahfad have broken up the camps but fighters seem to have simply moved into other parts of the country.
In the days following the fighters’ departure from Mahfad, AQAP gunmen raided local banks in Hadramawt province, some 480 km away, suggesting they can travel almost unchecked. At least 27 people were killed in that attack, one of several assaults around the country, including one on the presidential palace, in the past two months.
“Using the army against Al-Qaeda has very limited utility and Al-Qaeda can adapt. It’s like going after a fly with a sledgehammer, it’s not effective,” said Abulghani al-Iryani, a prominent Yemeni political scientist. AQAP has taken second place to the Al-Qaeda offshoot known as ISIS, he said, but will continue to be a serious international threat.
“Their significance is that they were given enough time to penetrate local communities and become well-established.”
The Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al-Qaeda merged in early 2009 to form AQAP. Funding itself partly through kidnappings – the group received almost $20 million in ransom payments between 2011 and 2013, Britain said last year – it has masterminded at least two failed plots on U.S. targets. President Barack Obama has said it is the group most actively plotting attacks against the United States. Last week U.S. national security sources said AQAP was part of a plot to develop explosives that could avoid detection in airports.
The story of Mahfad shows how the group is able to live alongside local communities. Home to around 10,000 people, the town is more than 400 miles from the capital Sanaa and a grueling five-hour drive from the southern port city of Aden through stark mountains, acacia trees and volcanic rock.
In 2011, after protests unseated Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Al-Qaeda fighters captured swathes of territory in southern Yemen and established Islamic emirates. The army mounted a campaign to push them out, but didn’t come near Mahfad.
Much of the country is beyond government control. Nearly half Yemen’s 25 million people face hunger. The country also suffers from water and fuel shortages, daily power cuts and endemic corruption.
In Mahfad, locals rely on goat herding and bee-keeping. Unemployed youth sit, AK-47s resting on their shoulders, under shady stalls, chewing qat, a mild stimulant popular in Yemen and Somalia.
“Because Al-Mahfad is so far and there was a lack of state’s presence in providing services, some of the sons of the area were exploited by Al-Qaeda who told them we can do this and that for you. The place was destitute and totally isolated,” said Jamal al-Aqel, the governor of Abyan province, which houses Mahfad.
Fighters, distinctive with long hair and beards, would come to the town to restock on essential goods and recruit boys. Townspeople said the fighters were mostly Saudi and Yemeni but only Yemenis with family in Mahfad ventured into the town.
Locals were unhappy about the foreign presence. It was one thing to have local fighters, “but for people to come from other areas and turn Al-Mahfad into a launch pad for terrorist attacks is an unacceptable situation,” said Aqel.
Somalis, who are only a short boat ride away across the Gulf of Aden, even appeared on the coast road asking for “Mahfad,” he added.
“We found all kinds of [explosive] devices. We destroyed about 10 tons of explosives and more than 180 mines and 150 explosive devices.”
Aqel said the camps also had a complex irrigation system and air conditioned rooms.
In late March, the fighters sent out a video of a large Al-Qaeda gathering, which showed hundreds of militants singing and celebrating unperturbed, apparently in the camp outside Al-Mahfad. The video was “very provocative,” said Aqel.
By April U.S. drone strikes hit targets in both Abyan and the nearby province of Shabwa, another AQAP stronghold. The Yemeni army followed with its offensive. Skirmishes on the Aden-Mahfad route killed at least nine soldiers, Aqel said.
Locals panicked. Town elders told military officials that they would ask the fighters to leave to avoid a battle.
“We told them, ‘You’re trapped and we’re trapped with you. There’s an operation in Al-Mahfad and an operation in Abyan and you’re in the middle and we civilians are stuck in the middle too and we can’t bear it anymore. We’re trapped from above and below,’” said Shamee.
Local Al-Qaeda fighters were allowed to quit the group and return home. There was one condition: They must “present a commitment to the sheikh” that they would no longer fight with Al-Qaeda, said Aqel.
The abandoned notebook features notes on weapons maintenance, topography, and elaborate diagrams for creating different ambushes.
It also identifies the three stages of guerrilla warfare needed to create an Islamic state – a similar blueprint to the one ISIS seems to be following in Iraq and Syria.
The first is the “exhaustion phase,” categorized by hit-and-run attacks, especially on supply routes. “The aim is to disperse the enemy, not kill its men,” the notes say. The enemy may come forward with “secret negotiations for some mujahedeen,” before urging “No military truce ... No negotiations.”
In the “equilibrium phase,” the mujahideen should focus on creating semi-official forces that can impose security and “launch political campaigns ... to clarify the features of the struggle.”
The mujahedeen should also “send diplomatic messages either through political language, or the language of blood,” to warn people whose governments support the “enemy” that they are a “legitimate target.”
“If negotiations are necessary then so be it, but only on the condition that we look for conditions for the enemy’s surrender because that will destroy their morale.
“It should be noted that the enemy will try to offer the mujahedeen a chance to participate in power. This is completely and utterly rejected.”
The endgame is the “categorical phase” in which “all negotiations should stop and the enemy will be warned with necessity of surrendering.” Shariah courts should be set up to try all those “apostates of religion.”
The people of Al-Mahfad are happy they avoided a battle. Aqel said he was working on bringing telephone lines back to the town. Yemeni soldiers have set up an army base at the foot of the mountain where the camp once stood.
But security precautions are casual. One recent afternoon, in 35 degree Celsius heat, soldiers relaxed under makeshift tents, pink plastic bags on their laps from which they lifted a few leaves of qat.
Reporters in a private car were allowed to approach the first checkpoint. A soldier flagged down the vehicle and asked for the occupants’ identification, apparently worried that the car could be a militant suicide mission. He borrowed a reporter’s pen and wrote down names on his hand and then waved the reporters through.
A few weeks later, a car bomber rammed the checkpoint in his vehicle, killing six soldiers.