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Yemen Works To Reclaim Al-Qaida's Territory


We turn, now, to a country that's become a big focus of America's war on terror. The U.S. now considers the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen one of that terrorist network's most dangerous. And this is happening in a context of change in Yemen. Just a few months ago, a new and democratically elected president took office. That followed a year of protests that saw the ouster of Yemen's longtime, autocratic ruler. It's been a difficult transition. Al-Qaida militants took advantage of the turmoil and this past year, have managed to take over towns and villages in the south of Yemen.

Wth U.S. help, Yemen's new government has been fighting back. NPR's Kelly McEvers just arrived in South Yemen this morning, and we reached her on her cellphone. Good morning.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us where you are, exactly, and what's happening there.

MCEVERS: We've just come into Abyan province. This is the part of Yemen that for basically, the last part of a year, al-Qaida-linked militants have held. So up until basically two days ago, this was no-man's land. I mean, you just could not get to where we're going. Yesterday, Yemeni troops and Yemeni minister of defense sort of took a victory lap around the province, claiming that they had, you know, routed the al-Qaida militants from these key villages and towns down here. What's more likely is that the al-Qaida militants actually beat a retreat once they realized that they were outnumbered and outgunned.

MCEVERS: It's not as if the Yemeni military actually, you know, took prisoners or put people in jail, or killed that many militants. It seems more like the militants basically fled - fled into the mountains here nearby, fled into other places. But what this does signal is that it's, you know, a change of tactics for the organization. For the last part a year, they were able to actually hold territory for the first time. And now, they might be going back to the old way - which is hiding out in the mountains, putting together supercells that can launch attacks - in Yemen, and against the United States.

MONTAGNE: What is the U.S. role in all of this?

MCEVERS: Well, the U.S. actually has advisers down here, working side by side with Yemeni troops and the southern tribes who they've enlisted to fight alongside Yemeni government troops. Their role is a bit secretive, for obvious reasons. They know that if it seemed that there was a U.S. role in this, that will only recruit more fighters for the al-Qaida cause. As we know, the U.S. is also engaged in a drone program, which has picked up considerably over the last year. Both CIA drones and other drones have landed in this region and in other parts of Yemen - again, targeting militants, but also there's quite a bit of civilian casualties as well.

MONTAGNE: OK. And Kelly, just again, you're on a cellphone and it's a little hard to hear you, but you are in southern Yemen. So let's proceed. The Yemeni government has claimed victories against al-Qaida in the past. Is there any indication that this particular one will stick?

MCEVERS: Well, that's what we're about to go find out. We're going to go ask people in the town if this will stick. I mean, al-Qaida did, you know, spraypaint signs saying, look, we've left, we're sorry, we had (technical difficulties). You know, but we were talking to some folks yesterday from the region and they said look, it's easy to, you know, force militants to retreat with your big guns, and your tanks. It's another thing to administer a region. And this is what the Yemeni government hasn't been able to do so far, and al-Qaida was able to do in these towns and villages - provide electricity, provide a sense of security.

That's why they were able to win over the locals. So that's the big question that we're going to ask - is the government going to be able to step in and do that?

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers, speaking to us from the Abyan province in southern Yemen. Thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.