On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm, which was intended to be a brief air campaign – the Saudis told the US it would take “about six weeks” – to expel the Houthis from Sana’a and reinstate Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Riyadh’s impulsive rush to war would have disastrous consequences for Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the broader region, unleashing a cascade of actions and reactions that, like the conflict itself, continues to this day. Al-Qaeda’s control over Mukalla one week after the Saudi air campaign began represented the first substantial repercussion.
Fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took control of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city and a key port on the southern coast of Hadramawt governorate, on April 2, 2015. For the next 387 days, AQAP would rule over a city of 500,000, amassing millions of dollars in revenue and recruiting hundreds of fighters to its black banner. This was AQAP’s second attempt at holding and administering territory in Yemen. Its first try, in March 2011, during the upheaval of the Arab Spring, had ended in failure when AQAP was forced to withdraw from areas under its control — Ja’ar in the governorate of Abyan and Azzan in Shabwa governorate — leaving behind an exhausted and disillusioned citizenry. But Nasir al-Wuhayshi, AQAP’s commander at the time, a former personal aide to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan who had studied his decisions and emulated his strategic thinking, believed he had learned a number of lessons from Al-Qaeda’s first failed attempt to rule, and he was ready to try again.
Based on dozens of interviews with witnesses, journalists, human rights activists, government employees and tribal sheikhs in Mukalla and the surrounding area, this is the story of AQAP’s 387 days in power. It starts, as do most stories of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, with a prison break.