BATAYS, Yemen (AP) — In the Yemeni president's battle with Shiite rebels, one of his chief allies is a powerful southern militia leader, a one-time anti-government fighter who later led his men in a bloody campaign against al-Qaida.
At 34, Abdul-Lateef al-Sayed al-Bafqeeh is already a battle-hardened figure and a local hero in southern Abyan province. He has survived multiple attempts by al-Qaida to assassinate him, including a suicide bombing that cost him an eye and nearly one of his hands.
But the reliance of U.S.-allied President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on al-Bafqeeh's 6,700-man militia for survival is just another illustration of how Yemen is falling apart. Hadi was forced to flee to the southern city of Aden after Shiite rebels known as Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen. The rebels are backed by Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still controls the best trained and equipped units of the military. Those units and the rebels are now moving toward Aden, aiming to crush what remains of Hadi's government and his loyalists in the military.
The conflict has crippled a key American ally, Hadi, who was working closely with Washington against al-Qaida's branch in his country. It also could spark intervention in the country by Hadi's allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who believe the Houthis are a proxy for Shiite powerhouse Iran to gain power in Yemen. Meanwhile, al-Qaida has taken advantage of the chaos to expand, building alliances with Sunni tribes against the Shiite Houthis and seizing at least one city in the south.
"The government is weak and maskeenah," al-Bafqeeh told The Associated Press, using the Arabic word for "pathetic."
Al-Bafqeeh has thrown his weight behind Hadi for a number of reasons — the president also hails from Abyan province and his government is paying the militia a monthly wage. And to al-Bafqeeh, the joint campaign by Houthis and Saleh looks like yet another attempt by the north to impose its will on his province, this time with the added friction between Shiites and the area's Sunni population.
"I tell the Houthis this: Stay put so we don't enter a sectarian war," he said. "We will defend our land. After all, the Houthis don't have any popular base here to come to."
An unassuming figure, with glasses and a glass eye, al-Bafqeeh is so prominent in his home province of Abyan, neighboring Aden, that he's known here as the province's "defense minister." His militia, known as the Popular Committees, is the de facto army and police in the province. The territory, home to around 1 million people, is a stunningly mixed landscape that sweeps up from the sandy coastal plain along the Arabian Sea, across barren deserts crossed by lush green river valleys with banana plantations, up into rocky, barren mountains towering more than 5,000 feet (1,500 meters).
Already, fighters from the Popular Committees helped troops defeat pro-Saleh forces that tried to capture Aden's airport last week. His militia and pro-Hadi troops are now fighting Houthi forces north of Aden.
An AP reporter and photographer took the 90-kilometer (56-mile) land journey from Aden to al-Bafqeeh's home village of Batays to meet him. About half the journey was on a road along the ocean, before turning north along a river valley dotted with towns that only several years ago were under al-Qaida rule. Batays sat in the hills at the foot of the mountains.
From Batays, a 15-minute drive went further into the hills along dirt tracks through a dry river bed past villagers in camel-drawn carts and militia patrols in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns. Al-Bafqeeh sat with three of his aides under a cluster of trees, sheltering from the midday sun, with an assault rifle at his feet. Guards nearby kept an eye on the surrounding hills.
"They are still around, waiting for a chance to kill us all," said militiaman Fawaz Ahmed, referring to al-Qaida.
Al-Bafqeeh rose to prominence as the son of a landowning family in Batays that claims descent from Islam's prophet, Muhammad.
During the last years of the rule of Saleh — the autocrat who led Yemen for nearly 40 years until his ouster in 2011 — al-Bafqeeh led a band of fighters who ambushed army convoys, looting their weapons, money and equipment, according to two longtime associates. That's not uncommon in Yemen, where frictions have gone on for years between the Sanaa government and local tribes who accuse authorities of neglecting them.
The two associates said that when al-Qaida fighters first moved into Abyan in early 2011, al-Bafqeeh joined them — out of anti-government sentiment rather than any adherence to militant ideology. He soon broke with the group when local al-Qaida leaders refused to share with him money looted from the local branch of the Central Bank, they said. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by al-Bafqeeh's men.
Al-Bafqeeh said only that al-Qaida tried to recruit him in 2011, "when the regime was oppressive and brutal ... People then joined al-Qaida to avenge themselves against the government. I and my men pulled out before we got involved with them."
In 2011, al-Qaida took over a string of towns and cities in Abyan, taking advantage of the security void during the popular uprising against Saleh. After Saleh was removed and Hadi stepped in as president, the government launched a campaign backed by U.S. drone strikes against the militants. That was when Hadi's government recruited al-Bafqeeh and his Popular Committees.
It took months of drawn out battles to drive the militants out of the cities in 2012. In the process, the Popular Committees lost some 500 men, al-Bafqeeh said.
"You cannot underestimate that organization," he said of al-Qaida. "They have good snipers, but their real strength is in suicide operations." Throughout the 90-minute interview, al-Bafqeeh had a tennis ball-sized chunk of qat in his cheek — the leaf that Yemenis chew as a stimulant — at times, spitting out a wad of yellow juice. His phone rang at least 30 times, and each time he handed it off to an aide to see who it was. "My right eye is glass and my sight in the other one is very weak," he explained.
Al-Bafqeeh has survived at least seven assassination attempts by al-Qaida, including a 2012 suicide bombing that cost him his right eye. His right hand was so shattered by the blast, it had to be surgically reconstructed in a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Three of his brothers and some 40 members of his extended family have been killed by al-Qaida. At the funeral of one of his brothers in 2013, al-Qaida tried to kill him by sending a large water container filled with explosives to the gathering. Sitting inside a tent where he received mourners, al-Bafqeeh received a phone call from an al-Qaida leader he knew who told him he had sent him a present. He stepped out of the tent because it was too noisy to hear the caller, he recounted to the AP.
Seconds later, the blast ripped through the tent, killing some 50 people. The explosives-laden flask was sitting on a table in front of his seat.
"Al-Qaida remains in Abyan, but they are keeping a low profile. If they emerge, we will kill them," said al-Bafqeeh.
The legacy of al-Qaida's rule, however, can be found on the walls of the cities it held, including Abyan's capital, Zanjibar, and the city of Jaar.
Graffiti declaring the Islamic emirate in Zanjibar can still be seen on many walls in the dusty city. Charred skeletons of cars remain in the streets, where buildings still show damage from the fighting to free the city, along with signs warning residents of mines.